sunak made me do it
on net zero, mandates and people without vision
I really have better things to be doing with my time than writing an emergency edition of this newsletter. I also try not to write when I’m angry, but watching the utter tosh that Sunak wheeled out this afternoon forced me to sit down at my desk and give shape to thoughts that have been rattling around in my mind for a few weeks now.
Today our Prime Minister (who lacks an electoral mandate) chose to get out his little podium to inform his public that Net Zero lacks a mandate from the British people. Yes, really. He bravely took to the plinth to tell us that ‘No leak will stop me beginning the process of telling the country how and why we need to change’. What a hero, what a visionary!
Usually Prime Ministers use these big set-pieces to announce a sexy flagship policy; maybe he’s going to sort out the ailing care-sector, or the NHS, or one of the other utterly broken parts of our critical infrastructure which have been decimated by a decade plus of ideology-led austerity cuts? Nope … In brief, Sunak wants to water down the policy commitments that are necessary for us to meet our legally binding environmental commitment to Net Zero, you know, the one that helps prevent the world heating up at such a rate that it threatens the future of civilisation as we know it. His big idea for the future of our country: no new taxes to discourage flying, and no diktats on recycling bins.
On the mandate front, he’s wrong, and embarrassingly so. On the very first page of the Conservative 2019 manifesto was a pledge to ‘reach Net Zero by 2050 with investment in clean energy solutions and green infrastructure to reduce carbon emissions.’ It’s in big calibri font, just under the words ‘I guarantee’ and a picture of Boris Johnson giving us all a big thumbs up. In a chapter entitled ‘Fight Climate Change’ the manifesto emphasised the world-leading nature of the Net Zero target, explaining how they would use the UK’s imminent hosting of the Glasgow COP ‘to ask our global partners to match our ambition.’
In the summer before that election, the UK had become the first major economy in the world to commit to net zero by 2050. They did this because an independent group of our brightest and best scientists and advisors recommended that they should do so. At the time this was hailed as, you guessed it, a demonstration of our global leadership (remember that?).
When politicians use the term mandate (derived from the latin ‘manus’ meaning hand and ‘dare’ meaning give) they tend to be describing the support they have to implement a particular policy. Whilst Sunak was correct that putting Net Zero into law happened at the end of a parliamentary cycle, the landslide majority which the Conservative’s subsequently gained on the basis of their 2019 manifesto (which made a huge deal of Net Zero) provided them with ample political support to implement it with gusto. It’s what the public want, after all, and so it’s what they set about doing. Some of the things that we need to do to meet our net zero target include swiftly stopping the sale of ICEs (internal combustion engines) and rapidly retrofitting our energy inefficient housing stock. Sunak plans to delay the ban of new petrol cars until 2035 and to ‘ease’ our insulation targets, whatever that means.
So what’s really going on here? Well, I’m going to take a wild guess and argue that it has very little to do with what Sunak thinks about climate change1 or the public interest, and much more to do with the Conservative tendency to use the future of our planet as an electoral litmus test. Let me explain.
The conservatives are fucked in the next election. You know it. I know it. Sunak definitely knows it. Perhaps one of the only ways Sunak will be able to get any campaigning traction is through the strategic use of ‘wedge issues’, which worked so well for them in 2019. Brexit was the ultimate wedge issue, a divisive and provocative policy which sought to divide the public into two camps. The rights of the transgender community are another; you are either for or against believing that ‘only biological women are women’, apparently.
The future of the planet is an interesting policy area to try and turn into a wedge issue, but Sunak’s determined to give it his best shot. The country is split into two extreme groups, he told us in his speech, those who passionately believe in reaching net zero in radical ways, and those who want to abandon it completely. In the latter regard he at least has a storied history of climate-denialists he can learn from. The latest pivot from formerly climate-denying politicians (like Steve Baker) who now begrudgingly accept that climate change is real2 is to argue that we simply cannot ‘afford’ to make the changes necessary to reach Net Zero in time, so we should just abandon it altogether.
And herein lies the kicker. The real point of Sunak’s speech was to create a new narrative which links Net Zero to economic irresponsibility. Look at how much it will cost, Sunak bleats, knowing full well that the short term costs are vastly outweighed by the long term economic benefits. Look at how much it will cost, Sunak laments, as he writes off an estimated £16 billion in Covid-fraud and loan schemes. Look at how much it will cost, he croaks, knowing full well the only reason he is Prime Minister is because of his predecessor’s disastrous economic experiment. The man is deranged, or at best, deluded.
Unfortunately for Sunak, I fear this humiliating policy announcement will only end in tears. The automotive industry are reportedly seething, recognising the way in which the Conservatives (who famously care for business) are quite happy to screw them over if it suits them. Labour will probably be quite happy to see the Tories lurch to the right on this, as it will make their paltry environmental offering seem more radical than it is. And as we continue to experience fluctuations in the energy market because of the war in Ukraine, even the most reticent voter is starting to understand the appeal of solar panels and electric cars. The economic case for rapidly electrifying our country has never been stronger. If I were Sunak I’d probably just accept defeat and take a nice job with Nick Clegg in Silicon Valley.
Time will tell if I’m being overly optimistic. Perhaps we are willing to be divided on this issue, which speaks so forcefully about the kind of society and world we believe in - but I hope that’s not the case.
‘Where there is no vision, the people perish’. This line from Proverbs has been on my mind lately, as it typifies, for me, the state of political leadership in Britain. At the moment there is no vision for our future, only a promise to reduce the number of recycling bins on our kerbside.
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He doesn’t care a jot.
I guess he looked out of his window last summer