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Good morning. Rishi Sunak is preparing the ground to water down some of his green policies, saying that hitting the UK’s net zero carbon emissions target has to be done in a “proportionate and pragmatic” way. Strategic master stroke or political blunder? Some thoughts on that question in today’s note.
Less than net zero
Keir Starmer and Rishi Sunak have something in common: the things they’ve said and done since last week’s by-elections aren’t that different from what they would have said or done had things gone differently in Uxbridge and South Ruislip.
If Labour had won Uxbridge, Starmer would have arrived at the party’s national policy forum to hammer out some outlines of Labour’s manifesto with the message “we’re on the right track, don’t let talk of tax rises ruin it”. Instead, he told members “don’t let what happened with us in Uxbridge happen to us nationally”. Not so much about clever strategy or the result working in his favour: just about what his only available message was.
Similarly, if Sunak had lost all three by-elections, he would have faced a party in a state of panic. (I never buy the talk that defeat is “priced in”. In my experience, MPs “price in” signs they are going to lose their seat in the same way the rest of us “price in” the fact that we are going to die one day: we still have a tendency to freak out when it happens.) He would have faced pressure to change approach.
As with Starmer, however, Sunak isn’t facing much pressure to do things he doesn’t want to do. The prime minister is not particularly attached to the government’s net zero aims and he is not going to be weeping over his Coca-Cola about watering them down. That is one reason why he is signalling his willingness to soften the government’s green policies.
But both leaders are taking risks here, too. As regular readers of the newsletter will know, I think Labour’s vulnerabilities on tax are real and the Labour leadership is right to worry about them. But the risk in seeking to neutralise one set of problems is that it comes at the price of making it seem as if Starmer wouldn’t change anything at all.
As listeners to our podcast will know, I don’t think either party needs to take a special lesson from the Uxbridge by-election. It’s an old, old story: voters don’t like bearing costs, which is one reason why most governments do their painful tax rises (or spending cuts) at the start of a parliament. I think, too, that it would be a particular mistake for the Conservatives to see what happened as a signal to move away from green policies.
Green policies are like almost everything in British politics — voters like the idea of the product, but they often recoil when they have to pay the price. As many of the prices in question feel quite a long way off — even those coming fairly soon, such as the 2030 target to ban the sale of new petrol and diesel cars, or the 2035 one for all new cars and vans to be fully zero emission at the tailpipe — I don’t think the Conservatives have much to gain from watering them down.
Added to that, all these policies have expiry dates after not only the end of this parliament but also the next one. So they are exactly what Labour needs, given the party’s reluctance to talk about big spending in the next parliament: these are policies with which Labour can differentiate itself from the Conservatives, without having to have a difficult conversation about the next set of budgets.
The biggest reason not to water down the UK’s green policies is the need to decarbonise. But another reason, if you’re Rishi Sunak, is it might just hand Keir Starmer a weapon he badly needs.
Now try this
This week, I mostly listened to Ludwig Göransson’s marvellous score for Oppenheimer while writing my column. Göransson gave a fascinating interview about the soundtrack and his creative process to Curzon Cinemas’ in-house magazine, which you can read here.
Top stories today
Politicians ‘afraid’ of tough decisions | The former chair of the UK’s climate advisory body has branded as a “failure” of leadership and “incredibly dangerous” the Westminster politics that he said deterred the government from doing more to tackle climate change.
Radiographers walk out | About 5,000 radiographers will walk out for 48 hours from 8am today, in the profession’s first-ever solo stoppage. It comes as new data showed that roughly 68,000 hospital appointments and procedures were axed because of last week’s strike by senior doctors.
‘Huge amount of work’ | Some new post-Brexit trading rules for Northern Ireland due to take effect within weeks will prove “more burdensome” than current arrangements, a House of Lords committee has warned, urging London to “get on with” negotiating outstanding details.
Employment growth set to wane, says report | The punitive approach and poor quality of the UK’s job support system is holding back a workforce recovery that is badly needed to boost the economy and bring down inflation, according to a report published today.
— The FT’s Big Read today examines UK labour productivity, asking why British workers turn out less for every hour they work than their counterparts in other advanced economies such as the US, Germany and France.