How will the Prime Minister’s announcements on Net Zero policy go down with the electorate? We’ll likely see some snap reaction polling at the weekend, which will probably show support for delaying the bans on petrol-only cars and gas boilers; people have generally been sceptical about these targets being met.
But what will the impact be on the Conservative Party itself – now and over the longer-term?
I have just finished a major research exercise which might help answer this question. The research included a 4,000 sample, nationally-representative poll and eight focus groups of 2019 Conservative voters who are now undecided, basically split into working-class and middle-class groups. (You can make up your own minds about the poll by looking through the tables here.)
Time will tell, but my impression is the way the announcement was made – and, crucially, reported – means it’ll have a marginally negative impact overall. Here’s why.
Voters support environmental policies and Net Zero
As I’ve written here before, pretty much everyone takes the environment seriously and most voters support Net Zero. Unlike in the US, in Britain there’s very little green scepticism.
In our poll, the public ranked the threat of climate change as the fifth most significant issue facing the UK (23 per cent put it in their top three issues facing the country), ahead of availability of housing, crime, Brexit, taxation, and schools.; in practically any focus group, people volunteer that they care about the environment because they want to leave the world in a good place for their children and grandchildren.
Also in our poll, climate change topped the list of long-term challenges facing the world. While Rishi Sunak didn’t engage formally in green scepticism, regardless of what he said many people will have taken this away. There’s no mileage in this
Voters don’t blame environmental policies for the cost of living
In this research, and in all the other research we’re doing, the cost of living naturally dominates the early part of practically every focus group. But at no point does anybody ever blame green taxes and charges, nor Net Zero policy, for higher costs. It has never, ever happened: they blame profiteering, the war in Ukraine, higher taxes, and the legacy of Covid.
Through our polling we learnt that Net Zero was the tenth of ten reasons chosen by the public to have caused their tax to go up (16 per cent overall). Far more likely to be blamed for higher taxes was Covid-19 and lockdowns (51 per cent), the welfare state (36 per cent), British support for Ukraine (35 per cent), and mistakes by Liz Truss (32 per cent).
Additionally, Net Zero was also considered the least likely of 11 factors to have caused the cost of living crisis (only 14 per cent of the public overall).
With this in mind, it’s hard to imagine how all this will resonate with voters who are actually looking for progress on cost of living. I’m not advocating this, it would be ludicrous, but to put this into context, a new law banning firms profiteering would be off-the-charts popular; this is basically irrelevant.
Policy u-turns are a bad look
In the groups, when it was put to them that the Conservatives could junk or water down the Net Zero target, three reactions came up unprompted.
Firstly, most strongly, people suggested it would show the Conservatives couldn’t be trusted because it was yet another promise they’d gone back on.
Secondly, people said it would show the Conservatives were incompetent because it would indicate they couldn’t hit a target some 30 years in the future.
Thirdly, and I suspect this will play out more in the next few weeks, people said it would be unfair on those people who had, for example, already bought an EV or a heat pump.
In the latter groups, we talked about the progress the UK had made reducing emissions; this then provoked a strong reaction that it would be wrong to junk a target that we had made so much progress to hitting.
No, the Prime Minister didn’t say he was going to junk Net Zero, but the presentation was nonetheless focused on u-turns. Incidentally, in the poll, the second and third most popular words associated with the Conservative Party (after “out of touch with the public”) were “untrustworthy” and “incompetent”.
Anti-politics is raging again
The responses above – that junking Net Zero would damage the Conservatives on trust and competence – were surprisingly consistent and I think reflect what is becoming a defining theme in British politics: “anti-politics”.
The groups I ran for this project were the most anti-politics groups since the late 2000s; we’re picking this theme up all the time now. Policy u-turns, in this climate, are a dangerous game. Of course, sometimes they’re the right thing to do, but they come with great risk. People are rolling their eyes a lot at the moment.
What does all this mean? It would be absurd to say that Sunak’s announcement was some terrible electoral mistake; it wasn’t. But some people seem to think this is a springboard to success. It’s impossible to see how this could be the case. As I note above, it feels like it’ll be marginally bad overall. Time will tell.
Time will also tell whether the Conservatives take up the theme of green scepticism more broadly. Many are encouraging them to go down this route. Here, I think we can be clear: our research shows this would be a more serious mistake.
In the poll, we paid special attention to those who have moved from the party since 2019 and those who are still intending to vote Conservative at the next election. Among both of these groups, a majority believe the UK should aim to reach Net Zero by 2050, and a very small proportion (15 per cent of wavering 2019 supporters) would support dropping the target outright.
We also discovered that for 2019 Conservative voters who are wavering on voting Conservative again, would considered a party who dropped Net Zero to be out of touch (net +14), stupid (net +10), short-sighted (net +10), uncaring for the next generation (net +14), and unscientific (net +6).
Crucially, getting rid of the Net Zero target was deeply unpopular with wavering 2019 Conservative voters: 22 per cent say it would increase their likelihood of voting for a party if they dropped the Net Zero pledge, but 39 per cent say it would decrease it. Nearly a fifth of voters (17 per cent) who voted Conservative in 2019 and are now looking elsewhere say they would definitely not vote for a party which dropped Net Zero; only 6 per cent of this same group would definitely support this party.
In a few months’ time, my guess is that all people will remember from the announcement is that the Conservative Party changed their mind on something. And this will likely be brought up as evidence that they’ll probably not meet their pledges on other issues.