Anger as Rishi Sunak waters down climate change commitments while insisting he's 'committed' to them
Rishi Sunak has watered down efforts to tackle the climate crisis in a move that’s prompted a furious backlash from his own MPs.
In a press conference on Wednesday that followed an emergency cabinet meeting, the Prime Minister, backtracked on a series of measures and commitments, including delaying the ban on new fossil fuel cars by five years, and putting back the ban on new fossil fuel boilers.
His announcements caused chaos in his own party, with business secretary Kemi Badenoch posting in the Tory MP whatsapp group begging them to refrain from criticising the announcements on social media.
Making his statement to applause from ministers unusually attending a Downing Street press conference, Mr Sunak announced he would put back a ban on new fossil fuel cars by five years in a major U-turn among a raft of measures.
He also confirmed that households would “never” be forced to “rip-out their existing boiler and replace it with a heat pump”. Insisting the commitment to reach net zero by 2050 remains in place, Mr Sunak also announced no household will be forced to introduce energy efficiency improvements, and suggested his Government would not implement any new taxes on air travel.
Mr Sunak insisted the UK was already ahead of allies in reducing emissions and could not impose “unacceptable costs” on British families.
He said: “The risk here to those of us who care about reaching net zero, as I do, is simple: if we continue down this path we risk losing the consent of the British people.
“And the resulting backlash would not just be against specific policies but against the wider mission itself meaning we might never achieve our goal.
“That’s why we have to do things differently.”
After announcing the changes, he added: “I think it is absolutely wrong to describe in any way, shape or form what I’m doing today as ‘watering down our targets’.
“If someone thinks that what we’re doing is somehow not sufficient, not ambitious enough, I don’t know what they’d say to pretty much every other country in the world, because we are way out ahead already and continuing to maintain that leadership.
“So I’m very confident that what we’re doing is right, because not only do we have world-leading targets, we’re actually just doing it in a better way that will bring the country along with us and save families thousands of pounds, and there’s nothing ‘watering down’ about that”.
The changes come as part of a clear attempt to create a wedge issue with Labour, and what Tory MPs hope can be a dividing line with Sir Keir Starmer’s party. Following the weaponisation of ULEZ in the Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election, Conservative strategists hope to use the same approach nationwide, suggesting Labour would make households poorer.
With Mr Sunak speaking from behind a podium saying “long-term decisions for a brighter future”, Downing Street are seeking a new approach following numerous announcements that have failed to impact Labour’s 20-point lead in the polls.
It prompted a swift intervention that will only galvanise opposition among Tory MPs, with former Prime Minister Mr Johnson warning Mr Sunak not to “falter” on key climate crisis initiatives.
He told the Conservative leader that he cannot afford to “lose our ambition for this country” as he argued policies were generating jobs and driving growth.
In a statement, Mr Johnson said that businesses “must have certainty about our net zero commitments”.
“The green industrial revolution is already generating huge numbers of high quality jobs and helping to drive growth and level up our country,” he added.
“Business and industry – such as motor manufacturing – are rightly making vast investments in these new technologies.
“It is those investments that will produce a low-carbon future – at lower costs for British families.
“It is crucial that we give those businesses confidence that government is still committed to net zero and can see the way ahead.
“We cannot afford to falter now or in any way lose our ambition for this country.”
It was Mr Johnson who in 2020 announced plans to bring the ban on new cars being powered solely by fossil fuels to 2030.
His criticism was echoed by close ally and prominent Tory environmentalist Lord Zac Goldsmith who demanded an election over the “economically and ecologically illiterate decision”.
The peer, who quit as environment minister in June with a scathing attack on Mr Sunak’s environmental “apathy”, described it as a “moment of shame” for the UK.
Speaking to MPs before the announcements were confirmed, there were mixed feelings in the party, ranging from delight to outright fury.
One backbencher called it “stupid, and likely to damage us in lots of seats for the sake of a few idiots”, while another praised it as a “welcome dividing line with Labour”.
The car industry has also reacted angrily, with Ford warning that delaying the ban on new petrol and diesel vehicles will “undermine” its needs from the Government.
Responding, Ed Miliband MP, Labour’s Shadow Energy Security and Net Zero Secretary, called the announcement “desperate”.
He said: “Today is an act of weakness from a desperate, directionless Prime Minister, dancing to the tune of a small minority of his party. Liz Truss crashed the economy and Rishi Sunak is trashing our economic future.
“Having delivered the worst cost of living crisis in generations, the Prime Minister today loads more costs onto the British people. Delaying the phase out of petrol and diesel cars will add billions in costs to families and damage investor confidence in the UK, as we have seen from the furious business reaction today.
“This is a Prime Minister who simply doesn’t understand and cannot grasp for Britain the opportunities for jobs and our economy of driving forward with action on clean energy”.
The SNP called the changes “reckless”, with the Westminster leader Stephen Flynn MP saying the Tories were “weaponising our energy future”.
He said: “This reckless plan from the Tories puts at risk Scotland’s economic future - we are a renewable energy powerhouse and there is a global energy race to Net Zero, if the UK takes us out of that race the damage will be catastrophic.
“All the evidence tells us that we can protect and create jobs in Scotland by ensuring that we get the energy transition right, but the Tories now don’t even seem to want to have a transition, just a cliff edge.
“Rishi Sunak and the Tories are displaying a poverty of ambition, not content with having stolen Scotland’s energy past Westminster now wants to sabotage our energy future.”
The Scottish Greens accused the UK government of offering a blank cheque to polluters and proposing climate surrender.
Scottish Greens environment spokesperson, Mark Ruskell MSP said: “In one climate denying speech Rishi Sunak has just told the world that his government has given up on net zero, that it has run out of ideas, and it intends to squeeze every last drop out of the economy and the North Sea.
“These proposals are not just disastrous for our environment, but also for our economy. The Tories are turning their back on a huge economic opportunity and the chance to rebuild our country. They have killed the certainty needed by investors to grow new sectors of the economy that are vital for our economic prosperity.
“After 13 years of Tory misrule we are years behind where we need to be in tackling the climate crisis. Now the Prime Minister is treating our environment as another stage of his cynical culture war and giving a blank cheque to polluters.
“Tinkering at the edges is not enough, but now the Tories are even u-turning on that. It’s not just a climate climbdown, it’s a cry of surrender”.
The announcement also prompted yet another row with the Commons Speaker, as Sir Lindsay Hoyle claimed ministers had once again breached the rules.
A spokeswoman for the Speaker’s Office said: “If he had the power, the Speaker would recall the House immediately – and he is writing to the Prime Minister today, to express that view in the strongest of terms.
“This is a major policy shift, and it should have been announced when the House was sitting. Members with very different views on this issue have expressed their disquiet on the way this has been handled, especially as the Commons rose early last night, so there was plenty of time for this statement to be made.
“Instead, the unelected House of Lords will have the opportunity to scrutinise this change in direction this afternoon, when it hears the Government’s response to a private notice question on this issue.
“This is not the way to do business. Ministers are answerable to MPs – we do not have a presidential system here.
“The House of Commons is where laws are made, national debates are had – and where statements should be made.”
Mairi McAllan, the Scottish Government’s spokesperson for Transport, Net Zero and Just Transition. said: “The Prime Minister’s decision to renege on the UK’s key net zero commitments is an unforgivable betrayal of current and future generations.
“It will be devastating for our environment, constitute complete economic illiteracy, and undoubtedly have serious implications for Scotland’s climate ambitions. It will also inflict further, serious damage to the UK’s already diminished international reputation. I urge Rishi Sunak to do the right thing for our people, planet and economy – step up and demonstrate the climate leadership required at this crucial time.”
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