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Rishi Sunak arrived in Aberdeenshire on Monday on a private jet, flying into exactly the kind of row he has been stoking since green issues handed his Conservatives a surprise by-election win less than a fortnight ago.
Trailing Labour by about 20 points in national polls, the Tory triumph in Boris Johnson’s old Uxbridge and South Ruislip seat was widely attributed to a backlash against a new daily charge aimed at highly polluting cars.
Sunak’s trip to Britain’s oil capital, partly to announce plans for hundreds more North Sea drilling licences in the years to come, was the latest in a series of interventions that have enraged environmentalists.
His calculation is that by portraying himself as being “on the side” of motorists and taking a “pragmatic and proportionate” approach to climate change, he is aligning himself with the views of middle Britain.
Sunak’s contention is that the UK can reach its target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050 while still drilling for oil and without unfairly hitting struggling families.
The flip side of his calculation is that he hopes to present his opponents as unreasonable or, in the words of cabinet minister Michael Gove, suggest they have turned net zero into a “religious crusade”.
Will Sunak’s shift work politically? Polling suggests that — unlike the US — there is broad cross-party support in Britain for moving to a net zero economy by the middle of the century.
However, polls also suggest that support drops when the public is asked whether carbon-cutting policies should be pursued if they result in extra costs for ordinary families. Tory voters are particularly resistant to the idea.
Although Sunak’s press secretary insisted the prime minister had not changed his policies since the Uxbridge win, his tone has shifted in the last week, as Tory MPs clamour for a dilution of government green policies.
Sunak claimed the London Labour mayor Sadiq Khan had handed Uxbridge to the Tories with his plan to extend the £12.50-a-day ultra-low emission zone to outer boroughs, hitting owners of highly polluting cars.
Then, on Sunday, Sunak vowed to review “anti-car policies”, notably “low-traffic neighbourhoods” — areas that have been closed to through traffic and which have been blamed by some for creating local congestion or blocking access for emergency vehicles.
To ram home the “pro-motorist message” Sunak — whose preferred prime ministerial mode of transport is the helicopter — posed for a picture in ex-premier Margaret Thatcher’s iconic official car, an old Rover.
All the while Sunak, conscious of polling suggesting growing public concern about climate change, has been careful to resist pressure from MPs in his own party to change its key carbon-reducing targets.
The prime minister repeated again on Monday that he would stick to the ban on sales of new diesel and petrol cars from 2030 despite 40 Tory peers and MPs calling for a delay. The 2050 net zero target also remains in place.
Sunak’s confirmation of future North Sea oil drilling licences was not a break with existing policy — he has long argued that domestic supplies should be exploited during a carbon transition — but it still generated fury.
The prime minister appeared to relish the fight, happy to be talking about something other than the poor state of the economy and public services, the two issues that traditionally dominate the thoughts of voters.
In a combative interview with BBC Scotland, Sunak defended his use of a private jet for his visit, saying that people who criticised him for flying wanted — by implication — to “stop people going on holiday”.
Ed Miliband, Labour’s shadow climate change secretary, claims Sunak is undermining the bipartisan approach to cutting carbon, which ministers often claim makes Britain an attractive place for green investment.
Sunak claims that Labour’s opposition to new drilling is because it had received about £1.5mn from Dale Vince, a businessman who has also given money to the pressure group Just Stop Oil.
Chris Skidmore, the former Tory energy minister who conducted a net zero review for the government, said the plan for additional drilling was “the wrong decision at precisely the wrong time, when the rest of the world is experiencing record heatwaves”.
But Sunak continues to court two audiences at the same time. His promise of more oil and gas drilling was coupled with an announcement of two new projects to capture carbon dioxide and store it under the North Sea, which critics say is an unproven technology.
For now, Sunak’s approach is more about a shift in tone than an abandonment of the government’s climate goals. Even the prime minister’s promised review of “low-traffic neighbourhoods” was described by his spokeswoman on Monday as no more than a “fact-finding mission”.
Conservative election strategists have always feared that by taking more strident positions on issues such as the environment, migration and transgender rights, they risk driving away moderate Tory voters. For now, many Conservative MPs believe Sunak is striking the right balance.
“This is all rhetorical,” said one. “There aren’t going to be any actual changes to the law. The government is just trying to make clear we’re on the side of the majority, not the minority.”
Greg Clark, Tory chair of the Commons science committee, said: “Developing carbon capture is clearly a green policy and, until we no longer need oil and gas for refining, using our own supplies rather than shipping them in from overseas seems obviously sensible.”
One government official said of Sunak: “I think he’s very smart to
position himself as ‘pro-motorist’. In Westminster it’s easy to
forget how much people outside of urban centres rely on their car to
get to work or transport their family around.”