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Good morning. Everyone likes devolution until they get punched in the mouth, as the political scientist Mike Tyson once said. The Conservative party’s narrow victory in the Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election continues to reverberate around British politics.
Rishi Sunak is in Aberdeenshire today announcing plans to drill more oil and gas in the North Sea, and posed in Margaret Thatcher’s old Rover yesterday while pledging to review what he calls “anti-motorist” measures. Some thoughts on that in today’s note.
Up in the air
Rishi Sunak wants to “review” how low traffic neighbourhoods (LTNs) are working. Keir Starmer is having “ongoing discussions” with Sadiq Khan about the expansion of London’s ultra low emissions zone (Ulez).
I can’t help feeling that we have a pretty good mechanism for “reviewing” low traffic neighbourhood and other traffic reduction measures: they’re called local elections! We can see that in council elections — when voters feel like LTNs are working well, they reward their architects, and when they don’t, they punish them.
Ditto, given that transport is one of the few powers the Mayor of London actually has, we are going to get a pretty good steer on what Londoners think about Ulez next May.
Now, when Labour frontbenchers talk about an ongoing conversation between Starmer and Khan, they know that in practice there is no serious prospect that Khan is going to abandon the Ulez enlargement. Its expansion to all of the capital’s 33 boroughs will go ahead, as planned, this summer. We will find out whether opposition to the scheme fizzes out, as it did after its introduction and its first expansion, or if Khan has made a fatal political error.
Sunak’s commitment in the Telegraph to roll back what he calls “anti-motorist” schemes is more serious because it might actually lead to some policy changes. This reflects a broader truth: despite how both parties talk a good game when it comes to devolving power and control to local, regional and devolved government, that cross-party consensus is shallow and fragile. It retreats under the slightest pressure and in search of the smallest bit of political advantage.
While pro-devolution thinkers are rightly cheered that on both sides Starmer and Sunak, Michael Gove and Lisa Nandy all make pro-devolution noises, the last week has shown we are some way from British politicians weaning themselves off their desire to centralise almost everything in Westminster and Whitehall.
Etch a wedge
British voters tend to see more “moderate” politicians as more competent. But as with all these things, the measure is comparative not absolute. Voters didn’t see Margaret Thatcher as particularly “moderate”, but they saw her as significantly more moderate than Michael Foot or Neil Kinnock. John Major was perceived as more moderate in absolute terms than Margaret Thatcher — but less so than Tony Blair.
I think it can be a mistake to simply think that “moderate” and “centrist” are fungible terms. (A good Jemima Kelly column on that, albeit one that made this particular centrist splutter into his cornflakes.)
This is the big strategic risk that I think Rishi Sunak’s abandonment of “green” policies is making. As John Burn-Murdoch details in the Data Points column, British voters, including Conservative and Labour, are more supportive of action to tackle climate change than those of other wealthy western nations.
While some of the individual policies that Sunak is retreating from are unpopular, or in the case of one spotted by the FT’s David Sheppard and Rachel Millard, obscure, I think the collective effect is just to make the prime minister look less moderate than Boris Johnson, Theresa May or David Cameron.
It’s one thing to specifically attack, say, Labour policies on new oil and gas. But when you pair it with briefings about the end of 20mph zones, limiting local government powers, and in which the ambient noise from your government suggests hostility to net zero, it risks looking less like a nuanced position on energy policy and more like you are at odds with seven out of 10 British voters.
Now, as I’ve written before, and as the Economist’s Duncan Robinson sets out in an excellent column, that’s in large part because Sunak just is pretty rightwing.
But that’s a pretty big vulnerability if you ask me. I think the appearance of moderation is one of the most important things you can have in politics. It’s why Cameron’s great political trick was his ability to present himself as a moderate Boden dad (donning floral shorts and linen) while delivering a pretty radical set of reforms, why Joe Biden’s folksy image was a big asset to the Democrats in 2020, and why the moderate “vibes” that Sunak and Jeremy Hunt give off are the best things the Conservative party has going for it at the moment.
The big risk of all this noise about climate is that it just repositions Sunak as anything but a moderate, and as less moderate than his main rival at the next election. That has generally been the death zone for prime ministerial candidates in British politics, and I continue to think that remains the case.
Now try this
I had a lovely weekend. Among other things, I enjoyed my Saturday morning with the FT Weekend. I particularly liked Henry Mance’s piece on UFO hunters, Miles Johnson’s FT Magazine piece on the fall of an Italian crime family, and Lindsey Hilsum’s obituary of the BBC journalist I, like many people, greatly admired: George Alagiah.
Top stories today
More ‘vigorous’ vetting of prospective peers needed | Nominees for political peerages should undergo deeper vetting of their suitability to take a seat in the House of Lords and be required to commit to active participation as a legislator, the speaker of the UK’s second chamber has urged.
James Cleverly’s pitch on Africa | The UK foreign secretary has said Britain must step up its engagement with African nations on “genuinely sustainable security measures”, conceding that some countries have turned to the Wagner paramilitary group to meet an “unfulfilled need”. He said he would “look with seriousness” at any requests from African leaders “to work on training with the British armed forces”.
Student living costs outstrip loans | University leaders have stepped up calls for ministers to boost financial support in England for students from the poorest backgrounds after new research showed inflation-busting rises in the cost of housing.
Slow burn | The UK government’s ambition to more than triple Britain’s nuclear power generation capacity by 2050 badly lacks of a strategic plan to achieve it, according to a report published today.
Limits on speed limits | Ministers are considering restrictions on councils’ ability to impose 20mph speed limits as part of a new shift against green policies and traffic schemes, a stance condemned by safety and travel groups as shortsighted and divisive, the Guardian’s Peter Walker reports.