Rishi Sunak has long held concerns about the cost of hitting net zero, his allies insist, but some close to the UK prime minister say the seeds of this week’s dramatic green pivot can be traced to a single date: July 20.
That was the day of the Uxbridge by-election, when the Conservatives clinched a shock victory many across the political divide chalked up to the costs imposed by Labour-led London’s expansion of an ultra low emission zone.
Uxbridge underlined the potential electoral power of prioritising household budgets over environmental considerations and seized imaginations in government, according to some insiders.
Sunak’s announcement on Wednesday that he was diluting key net zero targets, including delaying by five years a ban on new petrol cars, was a gamble that Uxbridge’s local politics could revive Tory prospects nationally.
Tory MP Craig Mackinlay, chair of the Conservatives’ net zero scrutiny group, said it would bolster the party’s appeal among hard-pressed consumers as he heralded the prime minister’s “sensible pragmatism”.
The policy shift featured weakening targets on the transition away from oil and gas boilers, scrapping an array of looming energy efficiency requirements for landlords.
Though the move stoked a backlash from some parts of industry and the most eco-minded Tory MPs, Downing Street judged it would help Sunak solve some of the key challenges he faces ahead of the general election.
One of the most pressing of these is how to appear a “change” candidate after 13 years of Conservative rule.
Sunak in his speech leaned heavily into the idea that his new approach on net zero was a significant break with his predecessors — even Conservative ones in which he served as chancellor.
He accused “previous governments, both Labour and Conservative” of having failed to level with the public about the cost of curbing emissions.
In an even more explicit attempt to underscore his theme, he deployed the word “change” a striking 27 times during his 20-minute speech.
“The calculation is that the only credible way to win now is to say Rishi is the change candidate,” said a Conservative insider.
“If the election is framed as ‘Tories versus change’, we’ve lost. If it’s ‘Rishi’s change versus Keir Starmer’s change’, we’re still in the race,” they added.
While some in government advocated against challenging the “orthodoxy” on green issues, insiders said that Isaac Levido, Sunak’s campaign adviser, had been “looking for dividing lines with Labour”.
Other aides agreed the move could help the prime minister define himself against Sir Keir Starmer and draw a sharp contrast on green issues by casting himself as on the side of consumers struggling with inflation.
Starmer’s proposal to eventually spend up to £28bn a year on the UK’s green transition is a central pillar of his offer to voters. Labour has vowed to reinstate the 2030 ban on new petrol and diesel cars if it wins power.
In a nod to voters in the “Red Wall” of northern constituencies, Sunak highlighted in his speech that without his intervention on boilers, a terraced house in Darlington could have to pay £10,000 for a more expensive heat pump.
Though the move this week may prove a gamble, Sunak’s team had reasoned that the prime minister had by now completed the work of stabilising government after the turmoil of Boris Johnson and Liz Truss.
They believed the time had come for him to take more risks and embark on a different approach to some of the country’s main policy questions.
“He’s been freed up to go for it,” said a government official, adding that Sunak, while chancellor, had warned internally about the cost of some of the government’s most ambitious green policies.
He “genuinely believes” in achieving net zero by 2050, but did not think the UK should be an “extreme outlier” compared with other developed nations on some of its targets, the official added, pointing out that the car target had now been moved in line with EU nations.
More cynical Tory MPs point out that their colleagues had been running out of patience with Sunak’s safety-first approach, which has left the party languishing an average of 19 points behind Labour in the polls.
The prime minister had faced growing clamour in the Tory ranks over the summer for a big “reset” moment this autumn, which many MPs believe is his last big chance to set out a new stall ahead of the election expected next year.
Despite the fierce response from some elements of the motor industry and a vocal but modest group of environmental champions on the Tory benches, many government insiders are pleased with how the policy shift has landed.
While a leak to the BBC on Tuesday night meant Sunak had to rush to bring forward his speech from Friday to Wednesday, and interrupted plans to brief some stakeholders in advance, both the pivot and Sunak’s new fighting spirit have won support from some Conservative MPs.
Whether the public agrees remains to be seen. Polling by YouGov following his net zero announcement showed Sunak’s net favourability had slumped further to -45, his lowest score to date.
But still one relieved Tory remarked: “For the first time in a long time, Number 10 has set the agenda in Westminster and seized the narrative. Rishi owned the stage and owned the policy shift.”