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The torch has been dropped by a new generation. A decade after David Cameron told his party to “get rid of all the green crap”, Rishi Sunak’s Conservatives are again ready to water down their environmentalism.
Following a by-election win in Uxbridge attributed to a backlash against the Ulez tax, imposed by London’s Labour mayor on polluting vehicles, the Tories see an opportunity and a wider strategy. Standing firm against costly green policies might not only work electorally but could also be the glue that cements a political campaign against liberal orthodoxy, or what one might call the battle with Big Everything.
To explain this strategy one must first look at the Tory electoral predicament. Sunak has two problems. The first is that parties win elections by finding dragons to slay. But voters appear to have concluded that his government is the problem that needs solving. The second threat is that disillusioned supporters simply don’t vote. So Sunak needs a new dragon to energise his base.
All of which brings us to Big Everything, the outlines of which are already apparent in Sunak’s attacks on Labour. It formalises the Tory assaults against the “blob”, a term that now encompasses all of Whitehall, “lefty” lawyers and judges, the media, green campaigners, regulators, universities and trans-rights campaigners. In short, the woke liberal establishment. Brexit, they argue, freed the UK from Brussels, but its leftist ideologies are still embedded. Naturally, it is these dark forces rather than any governmental failings that hold back Britain.
The argument was put most recently by Paul Goodman, the influential editor of ConservativeHome, who said that the Tories need to be democracy’s champions against an “Ascendancy” — “a new ruling class of cartel capitalists, change-resistant public services, quangocrats, regulators, government-funded lobbyists and . . . judicial review”. Also on his list were environmental lobbyists.
Hence Big Everything. It is the Big State, Big Media, Big Quango, Big Finance, Big Judiciary, Big Green — big anything else you don’t like. There are many problems with this, not least that the Tories have already had 13 years in power to fix it. What’s more, Conservative policy is itself increasingly centralised and big state. But the big state is OK when it speaks through the voice of Michael Gove. And elections are rarely about ideological consistency.
Of course, Tories have been denouncing the “blob” for years with little impact. That is why net zero is crucial. It brings an immediacy and direct financial impact to the argument. The Ulez fight has persuaded Conservatives that voters can be mobilised against heavy-handed green policies that cost them money and that this can be built up into a wider attack on left elites forcing unnecessary costs on the public.
There are risks in this for the Tories, given clear public support for the climate agenda backed by every Tory premier from Margaret Thatcher to Boris Johnson. Many Tory MPs also fear a retreat from net zero. But Sunak, in the words of one friend, is “not that interested” in the issue. So his tactic is to insist he remains committed to net zero goals while not doing enough to meet them, what he calls “proportionate and pragmatic” progress. The upshot is that new oil licences will be approved, costly green measures delayed.
The strategy carries an obvious threat to opponents. Keir Starmer may have cut back Labour’s green ambitions for financial reasons but they remain central to the party’s offer. Referring to Ulez, Starmer warned that Labour should think hard about any policy the Tories highlight in their own leaflets. Climate policy will no longer go unchallenged, so measures with costs will need to be rigorous, charges well justified and compensation schemes more generous.
If the Conservatives can depict Labour as the political wing of Big Everything, a party in thrall to statist interference, climate and liberal ideologues, they have a strategy. Sunak is already trying to tar Starmer by equating him with disruptive Just Stop Oil protesters and immigration lawyers.
More broadly, the attack has power because it contains a kernel of truth. Voters can see the areas where liberal political values have morphed into unchallengeable articles of faith. Before Ulez, the argument seemed abstract; now Tories can put a price on it.
Mishandled green policy offers Tories the tip of the spear if they can depict a lack of moderation as heralding extra taxes. Only they, the argument will run, can restrain the well-heeled liberal elites from piling costs and regulations on ordinary people. The appeal of pragmatism over dogma is obvious. We’d all prefer a pathway to heaven that doesn’t involve dying.
On its own, the green issue is not enough, especially since the Tories must tread carefully and not appear to be climate change sceptics. But the attack can widen. So the Tories are pragmatists while Labour lapses into the elitist ideologies that raise costs and taxes on drivers, on pensions or on inheritance.
You don’t have to buy the argument, or forget the Tories’ own ideological rigidities, to see its potential power. Can it save the Conservatives? Probably not, but it might give them a dragon.
Labour, meanwhile, will be forced to do more work testing and justifying its policies. But then, that is no bad thing for a party that aspires to govern.