Amidst party conference season, the last month has seemed to mark the firing of the gun on the next general election campaign, anticipated to be held in either spring or autumn 2024. Both Labour and the Conservatives have begun to set out detailed policies in anticipation of an election manifesto, designed to both shore up their core vote and attract new voters, particularly key for Labour as it seeks to overturn the biggest Conservative majority since the 1980s.
For Rishi Sunak’s Conservative Party, the situation has become increasingly desperate as his party slips further back in the polls. It has been a year since Liz Truss’ calamitous premiership, and in spite of Sunak’s promise to reverse the Party’s implosion last October when he came to power, little progress has been made, and he remains nearly 20 points behind in the polls.
The biggest policy announcement from Sunak in the last month has been a U-turn on the country’s environmental pledges. Although the net-zero by 2050 target remains in place, a raft of environmental measures have been delayed or cancelled altogether.
The most significant of these is the ban on sales of new petrol and diesel cars, which has been pushed back from 2030 to 2035. Amidst much confusion and misinformation, it is important to note that this does not amount to an outright ban on petrol and diesel cars; merely that from the specified date, no new petrol and diesel cars will be able to be sold in the UK. It will therefore have little impact on most Britons in the short-to-medium term, as 82 per cent of car sales are used cars.
These decisions have remarkably brought together all sides of political and civic society, from car manufacturers to environmentalists, in condemnation of Sunak’s U-turn. Car giant Ford said that they needed “three things from the UK government: ambition, commitment, and consistency” and that “a relaxation of [the ban on new petrol and diesel cars by] 2030 would undermine all three”.
These decisions have remarkably brought together all sides of political and civic society, from car manufacturers to environmentalists, in condemnation of Sunak’s U-turn.
The government has justified the push-back on the ban by stating that this will bring the UK into line with the EU, but others have pointed out in retaliation that this undermines the economic aspect of the more ambitious 2030 ban, which gave the UK a comparative advantage for carmakers seeking to invest in electric car infrastructure.
Sunak was also ridiculed following another of his environmental announcements, in which he stated he would ditch a series of pledges that never really existed in the first place. These included households needing seven different rubbish and recycling bins and bans on meat-eating and frequent flying – none of which have ever been government policy.
Aside from the headline U-turn on the ban on new petrol and diesel cars, a number of other delays and cancellations of environmental policies were announced. This included delaying the target for eliminating the sale of gas boilers to homes, as well as scrapping energy efficiency targets for landlords and insulation requirements for homeowners. This was condemned as both economically and environmentally reckless, including by energy supplier E.ON, with the company’s CEO Chris Norbury saying that it risked “condemning people to many more years of living in cold and draughty homes that are expensive to heat.”
In spite of these changes, the government’s headline pledge of achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050 remains in place, and importantly, it is legally binding. However, fears have been raised that the government will struggle to achieve this aim after this series of announcements.
Moreover, many of these pledges, including the delay on the ban on new petrol and diesel vehicles, require a vote in Parliament. Although most Tory MPs have been supportive, most notably former Prime Minister Liz Truss, there has been some disquiet on the Tory benches, led by former minister and Boris Johnson ally Zac Goldsmith, who in June accused the Prime Minister of being “uninterested” in the environment.
After attracting condemnation from environmentalists, businesses and even some in his own party, it seems the only justification for Sunak’s U-turn takes us back to where this article began – electoral prospects. The Conservatives won July’s by-election in Uxbridge and South Ruislip after they effectively ran a single-issue campaign against the expansion of the ULEZ to encompass the entirety of Greater London. This appears to have buoyed Sunak into believing that what effectively amounts to an anti-environmentalist strategy could turn his electoral fortunes around, and perhaps offer a glimmer of an unlikely victory for the Conservatives at the next general election.
Yet a single by-election run on a very specific local issue, in which the Conservatives held on to the seat by just 500 votes, cannot be considered as an endorsement of anti-environmentalism by the wider electorate. A poll in August by research company Focaldata suggested that 73 per cent of Tory voters support the net zero by 2050 target, and recent polling has found that the majority of voters support the environmental pledges ditched by Sunak. Although anti-environmentalism may be an effective way of shoring up the Tory core vote, it does not play well with the wider electorate, particularly in the blue wall of Tory-held seats in southern England, where 72 per cent of voters said that climate policies would influence how they vote.
Although anti-environmentalism may be an effective way of shoring up the Tory core vote, it does not play well with the wider electorate
For most of the 21st century, there has existed broad consensus between the main political parties on the importance of tackling climate change. When David Cameron came to power in 2010, he promised the “greenest government ever.” At the COP 26 summit in Glasgow in 2021, Boris Johnson said the world was “at one minute to midnight” and urged immediate action against the climate crisis. Yet now, it seems that Sunak is breaking from that consensus – chasing a chance at electoral success, even if that means sacrificing the fight against climate change.
Sunak’s environmental U-turns were explored further in the first episode of X-Media’s collaborative Newsbite projects, featuring analysis and interviews with members of Exeter University’s Green and Conservative parties, and is available here.