The three legs of the stool that support energy policy are increasing security, reducing emissions and helping consumers. As he suddenly tore up the cross-party consensus on Net Zero yesterday, in the most startling development of his brief premiership, Rishi Sunak had an answer to his critics about each of them.
On security, he reiterated his case on offshore and onshore wind, new modular nuclear stations and new North sea oil and gas. For consumers, he argued that moving the ban on new and pure petrol and diesel vehicles back to 2035, and pushing the bar on gas boiler installation and off-grid oil boilers back to the same date, would save money. (The Boiler Upgrade Scheme which gives people cash grants to replace boilers will be increased by 50 per cent.)
On emissions, his pitch was that if consent for Net Zero collapses, then so will public support for reductions. And he had a sweetener for nervous greenish opinion: “we’re investing billions in new energy projects, yet we don’t have the grid infrastructure to bring that power to households and businesses. Right now, it can take fourteen years to build new grid infrastructure. There are enough projects waiting to be connected to generate over half of our future electricity needs.”
So the Government will reform planning to speed up “the most nationally significant projects”. The Prime Minister’s opponents have counter-arguments on each point but, even on the effects of chopping and changing targets on business confidence and certainty, he isn’t alone. While Ford described the 2030 target as “a vital catalyst”, Toyota declared that the announcement is “welcome” and BMW said its plans won’t change.
And although some of Sunak’s detail was dubious (he over-egged, as it were, the threat of a meat ban), he was making a big, powerful, distinctly conservative and, in his own word, “sensible” green case of the kind that Conservatives should have made at least ten years ago, before Theresa May gifted Net Zero as a legacy project, Boris Johnson did a big switcheroo from climate change sceptism, and Liz Truss appointed Chris Skidmore to conduct a Net Zero review.
As the Prime Minister pointed out, the 2035 date for petrol and diesel vehicle puts us in the same place as such comparable European countries as France and Germany, Anglosphere countries like Australia and Canada, and US states such as California and New York “and still ahead of the rest of America”. He might have added that this date is five years earlier than that Johnson originally had in the wake of the 2019 general election.
All of this will be lost on his opponents – as will the careful triangulation he attempted between climate change fanaticism and rejectionism. Centre-right greens will think he went too far. Right-wing opponents, not far enough. An ascendancy of bigger business, its suppliers, charities, lobby groups and academics will oppose Sunak.
As will the elements of the civil service believed by insiders to have leaked his plans, leaving him little option other than to rush his speech forwards, before Downing Street could attempt to drum up third party support. The Prime Minister’s vision of a green revolution powered less by targets than technology will be new to most voters. With so many voices raised against him, won’t his own be drowned out?
My take yesterday was that while in one sense, the timing of Sunak’s change of gear is good, in that it’s never wrong to make the right argument, In another it’s terrible, because the best time to do so is at the start of opposition, with four years to develop your case, rather than three years in to a fourth term of government. Furthermore, he risks his case being written off as mere tactics, rather than strategy – a cynical gambit to put Labour on the spot in the wake of the ULEZ row.
Number Ten is well aware that if the next election is framed as Conservative v Labour, then the latter will win, if only because voters believe that the former have had their time. But if it comes to be seen as Change v Sir Keir Starmer, then Downing Street hopes the terms of political trade will, well, change. “I have made my decision: we are going to change,” Sunak said yesterday. “And over the coming months, I will set out a series of long-term decisions to deliver that change.”
This was risky. Support for the Net Zero consensus is highly concentrated, articulate and deeply felt, especially among younger people, and to date has been well entrenched in opinion polling. And if the Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election proved that the nearer the target (or measure), the bigger the opposition, then opposition to the status quo may sbe dispersed and diffuse.
So the change that the Prime Minister championed yesterday may have been proclaimed too late – at least, if enough minds are to be changed before the next election. Nonetheless, he may find comfort in YouGov’s snap poll. By 50 per cent to 34 per cent, Britons support the government’s proposal to push back the ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars from 2030 to 2035, it found.
Has the consensus misread, if not perhaps the width of public support for Net Zero, then its depth? And if Sunak isn’t prepared to take risks, then what’s the point of him? I asked last winter: is he a politician? And recently put it another way: who is he? Perhaps we are finally beginning to see the answer. Maybe he’s no more or less than some have said – at heart, a conventional, business-orientated Conservative with an old-fashioned, Asian-flavoured take on family values.
And as he’s started (almost a year late, some will doubtless say), he must continue, through possible resignations, brickbats from former leaders, and certain lawfare. “The Climate Change Committee have rightly said you don’t reach net zero simply by wishing it,” he said yesterday. Yet that’s precisely what previous governments have done – both Labour and Conservative.” Let me repeat and italicise those last two words: “and Conservative“.
In so saying, this ultra-cautious party manager, whose sole gambit of note to date was the Windsor Agreement, ripped up not just the climate change consensus but his own rule book. I suggested in July that the Prime Minister might present himself to the coming Conservative Conference as “a new kid on the block” who has had “a year to look under the bonnet” and confides to those listening that “what I’ve found isn’t pretty”.
“I have spent my first year as Prime Minister bringing back stability to our economy, your government, and our country,” he said yesterday, “And now it is time to address the bigger, longer-term questions we face. The real choice confronting us is do we really want to change our country and build a better future for our children, or do we want to carry on as we are.”
Hence his stress, in an echo of David Cameron and George Osborne’s “long-term economic plan” of “long-term decisions to deliver change.” Here, clearly, is his key message for the next election. It worked against the odds in 2015. These are much longer now. Can history really repeat itself this time round?