Sunak has decided on taking swing after desperate swing at the hitherto strong cross party and cross generational consensus that we should do whatever we can to reach net zero
I feel some generational affinity to Rishi Sunak, our first millennial prime minister. Like me, perhaps he spent more hours than he could count rewatching the Lord of the Rings films in early 00s cinemas. Perhaps he enjoys the odd spot of avocado on toast. And, surely, like the vast majority of people born between 1980 and 1996, he knows that climate breakdown is the biggest risk facing the planet.
Strong majorities of other generations, of course, feel the same way. My parents, now approaching retirement, are increasingly concerned about the scenes of natural destruction that have dominated the news this summer. They are under no doubt that this is due to human action over the centuries, and that human inaction over recent decades means that worse is to come.
Today, we hear that the prime minister is failing to do everything in his power to make sure that earth will remain liveable into our own millennial retirement. He has decided on taking swing after desperate swing at the hitherto strong cross party and cross generational consensus that we should do whatever we can to reach net zero.
A press narrative has formed that the Uxbridge and South Ruislip result was due to a backlash against Sadiq Khan’s ULEZ policy. Heeding this, Number 10 have decided that their last hope of turning around the polls in time for the general election lies in sacrificing one more, increasingly rare topic of national consensus to the culture war gods.
It is an act of cowardice.
Sunak is a smart man. He knows that building a net zero economy can create high quality jobs across the UK. A clear policy direction, and bipartisan agreement, gives a clear signal to international firms that the UK is serious about the drive towards electric vehicles, to low carbon heating and more. The voice of business today is clear – when the CEO of Ford is calling out the government for rolling back on its environmental commitments, you know that its doing something wrong.
He and his team are instead learning the simple, but wrong lessons from the by election. Firstly, the 13% swing in Uxbridge snd South Ruislip was still huge. Labour didn’t win the seat even in 1997, and coming within 500 votes of taking it was still a big result.
Secondly, the national reporting of ULEZ made it seem like far more people would be affected than was actually the case. My mum was pleasantly surprised when I confirmed that her 13 year old Ford Fiesta would incur no charges. Part of this must be down to the London City Hall’s communication of the policy, but Labour failed to provide sufficiently vocal backing, and the government and right leaning press outlets willingly misrepresented it.
Lastly, the government decided not to provide financial backing for London’s vehicle scrappage scheme, as it had in other areas. This meant Londoners who did face ULEZ charges would receive less of a subsidy when changing cars than households did in other city regions. Low emission zones are, after all, officially at least part of government policy, so the use of devolved powers to expand one in the country’s capital should expect financial backing. Instead, they decided to use devolution as a chance to show up a major Labour figure, rather than cooperate to reach our collective net zero and clean air goals.
Some net zero policies may cause inconvenience or financial strain for subsets of voters. Clearly, these need to be mitigated, especially when they land on those most in need, in order to help maintain support for decarbonising Britain and not exacerbate hardship. But on ULEZ the government decided that those affected would have to bear more of the cost of the policy in order to maximise political damage on London’s mayor.
The similar announcements today will, once more, create a stark contrast between Number 10 and Bute House, City Hall and other devolved leaders. Rather than having the courage to cooperate and support innovation on net zero in devolved governments and regions, Sunak is listening to his right flank and those who look across the Atlantic with envy, where the culture war spreads across green trenches.
Perhaps, as people suggest, he will move to California and go full Tech Bro. That is, however, a scene that takes climate change incredibly seriously.
I don’t suppose that Sunak and I will end up in the same retirement home, enjoying reruns of The Simpsons and a jaw friendly millennial diet of hummus and guacamole. Wherever he ends up, will he be able to tell those sat with him around the TV that he made thing better, not worse, on climate change, as greater and greater catastrophes play out on the news? It is not too late, Prime Minister, to say that some things are too big to jeopardise in the name of winning an election.