In the present parliament, by-elections have come to take on an importance that they really aren’t owed.
The loss to the Liberal Democrats in Chesham and Amersham led to Boris Johnson’s government scrapping its entire house-building agenda – even though that seat sat happily within the Green Belt, and was unaffected by his plans. Similarly, North Shropshire’s dabbling in yellow acted as the Battle of Adrianople for the same Prime Minister’s regime. Frailty, thy name is the electorate.
Similarly, many Tory environmental sceptics – and the odd opportunistic hack – have seized upon last week’s unexpected victory in Uxbridge and South Ruislip as an opportunity to press Rishi Sunak to ditch the various green pledges he has inherited. If you’re a longtime sceptic of Net Zero, heat-pump replacement, or the outlawing of non-electric cars, the rejection of ULEZ by the good people of Metro-Land seems to be prime evidence that voters just won’t wear costly environmental policies.
However, ULEZ and the rest of the green/Net Zero agenda are different things, at least in part. Of course, the fundamental principle is the same: are you willing to stump up to save the planet? But ULEZ has a specificity. Sadiq Khan says you must pay more to drive your old Passat, because otherwise kids in Neasden will grow up choking nasty fumes. Net Zero is planet-wide.
Which is why – as David Simmonds made clear for us yesterday – it is entirely possible for a Conservative MP to be pro-Net Zero, and anti-ULEZ. The former can be marketed as a planetary necessity; the latter as a cheap money-making grab from a Mayor of London who will happily fail to build homes and let knife crime spiral, but who still needs to pay the bills when his book sales don’t take off.
Nevertheless, if one chooses to make Uxbridge and South Ruislip about ULEZ – and ignore either Steve Tuckwell’s capabilities or the particular stubbornness of Uxbridge residents in the face of conventional wisdom – then it is no surprise that Conservative MPs such as Craig Mackinlay or John Redwood on our site today are calling for Rishi Sunak to drop various green pledges. Who wins an election by demanding £10,000 for a heat pump?
However, Conservative MPs critical of the way in which lower emissions are being pursued are in a minority among their colleagues. If you want to climb the great pole, then it’s easier to back the status qui.
Don’t believe me? Look at the 150-odd MPs who back the Conservative Environment Network. It is an unwritten law of Tory politics that whilst the backbench right might provide the Daily Telegraph column inches, it is the party’s centre-left that provides much of the ministerial talent. Party members may dislike Net Zero. But that doesn’t stop it being one of the most popular topics amongst our contributors.
Consequently, we have to date a struggle between a small number of committed parliamentary critics, a larger number of enthuasiasts, and a larger number of still who look to see which side triumphs. Simply put, one can imagine candidates in any post-Rishi Sunak leadership campaign railing against green targets in order to woo Party members.
So some MPs who are currently willing to bend over backwards to gives the thumbs-up to any pork-barrel scheme for electric batteries in their constituencies – if they retain them at the next election – may find their principles become more flexible afterwards. Fortunately, they might not have to wait until a shellacking at the ballot box to change their minds. The Prime Minister is ahead of them.
Sunak has said he doesn’t want to “hassle” voters and that the UK’s emissions targets must be hit in a “proportionate” way. Despite Michael Gove’s protestations, this has been seen as showing a bit of leg to those who want the targets softened, such as by failing to rule out a u-turn on the ban on all petrol and diesel cars by 2030. It doesn’t matter if it was the Conservatives that introduced the rush to decarbonisation. If Labour like it and voters don’t, it’s time to Willie Horton.
The problem that Sunak faces is that – to misquote Morrissey – some targets are firmer than others. The pledge to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by 100 per cent form 1990 levels by 2050 was made legally binding by Theresa May in one of her last, desperate attempts to give herself a legacy. By contrast, plans to phase out gas boilers or increase energy efficiency were vague, non-binding aims.
A problem thus confronts Number 10. The last few days have seen some extravagant anti-environment briefings on the back of the Uxbridge result. Even if the evidence suggests voters like greenery in the abstract, the Tories see fighting back against environmental policies as a potential route to retaining office, or at least in putting Labour on the spot. But doing so will require annoying a lot of MPs. So how serious is Downing Street about rolling back the environmental frontiers?
Sunak has previously queried the costs of Net Zero. He may resemble your average careerist, but his instincts lie in the Daily Telegraph editorials he furtively read between the covers at Winchester. His instinct may well be to scrap the sainted “green crap” he has inherited from his predecessors. Yet suggesting he might, and then failing to do so, is only going to make him look like a man who can’t make up his mind.