As the world looks on at Rishi Sunak’s climate decisions with bemusement, his target is an electoral victory banking on the “ULEZ effect”, writes Barry Johnston
Last week in New York, on the margins of a major UN summit to accelerate action on climate change, all talk was, incredibly, of the Uxbridge by-election. Such was the impact of Rishi Sunak’s hastily arranged press conference back in London last week laying out his brave retreat from the frontlines of global climate leadership.
It wasn’t meant to be like this. Sunak was meant to represent a return to a more predictable, collegiate British diplomacy. Show up, deliver some prepared remarks, don’t cause a scene.
Instead, Sunak chose not to attend, instead scheduling his own “big climate intervention” back home to clash head on with efforts by the UN Secretary General to marshal political and corporate leaders for a big push on climate action. But the clash Sunak is looking to square up is closer to home.
Viewed from New York, the reaction to Britain’s pivot ranged from despair to bemusement. Al Gore basically called for the UK public to overthrow its government. More soberly, corporates and investors warned of forgone investment. One senior UN diplomat I spoke to simply rolled his eyes at the mention of it all.
As Sunak delivered his new plans, the UK delegation in New York were left swinging. Oliver Dowden reassured approximately nobody at the UK mission’s business reception, themed “The Arts and Net Zero”. You can have either Downton Abbey or decarbonisation it appears. Not both.
Alok Sharma, soon to be outgoing Tory MP, was also in town, his well regarded presidency of the Glasgow climate summit an even more distant memory. Speaking to a room full of multinational business leaders eager to find markets for their burgeoning climate investments, he threw some diplomatic shade the way of the PM’s new policies. Cue vigorous, knowing nods of approval.
I say new policies, but that’s not really what Sunak delivered was it? Figuring out the detail and calculating the impact of these changes is a task he’s dumped in the lap of his new Energy Secretary. So much for Sunak the micro-managing technocrat. Instead Sunak was laying what he hopes will be a big political trap for Labour in the upcoming election. It was so unsubtle even Donald Trump managed to clock what was happening.
All of which takes us back to Uxbridge. Since the “ULEZ by-election”, campaigners on opposite sides have sought to impose their narrative on the outcome. One group argues that there is a settled consensus on the need to act on climate change, and that voters are looking for big positive climate offers from politicians. Another sees a thin veneer of concern rapidly shattered when climate policies start to hit voters in the pocket, at which point they’ll have no truck with carpooling, vegan sausages or, you know, affordably heating their homes.
While I adhere to the first view, without the political leadership needed to allay voter’s fears and misunderstanding over climate change and to design policies that shave the hard edges off dealing with it, I fear the second. When a politician puts their thumb on the scale in the way Sunak has done – “scrapping” policies that never existed and replacing decades of evidence-based policy making with bald assertions of truth – you’re on a slippery slope.
This is not the direction we want to head. Nor, of course, is the direction Sunak is seeking to steering us. No, it is for others – perhaps Labour – to explain why they want to ban your supper and tax your holiday. To prove how committed he is, the Prime Minister confirmed in his speech he will in fact be attending Cop28 in the UAE later this year. Whether the UK now continues to be a useful or even relevant participant at such forums was another question left unanswered.