On Wednesday, the Prime Minister announced a major shift in government climate policy. He believes that as a global leader in the net zero transition, the UK can justify delaying measures to reduce emissions in order to shield the public from more immediate costs.
Critics will point out this seemingly contrasts with his desire to “put the long-term interests of our country, before the short-term political needs of the moment” and Labour has committed to the original timeline on policies such as the ban on new petrol and diesel cars.
The opposition party argue that to deliver net zero, businesses need certainty from government to invest and accelerate growth. They castigate this shift as the latest example of a chaotic administration impeding the country’s path to prosperity.
The cross-party consensus on net zero has dissolved and the issue looks likely to be one of the defining features of the next election. The dividing lines between the major parties are now clear. Both have framed the choice facing voters in unique ways; the Conservatives claim they offer “pragmatism” while the Labour Party “ambition”.
In many ways, these roles appear reversed compared to the political debates of recent years. The UK’s departure from the EU was the defining issue of the 2019 general election and Boris Johnson triumphed with a message that he would ‘Get Brexit Done’, presenting an optimistic vision for life outside the bloc.
Rishi Sunak’s decision to adopt a more fearful approach, concerned with costs, seems to align more with the unsuccessful remain campaigns rather than the swashbuckling confidence of his predecessor. Indeed, many on the left and right think this is an electoral misstep, and can point to polling which shows only 20% of the public want the government to move slower to reach net zero.
However, beyond the surface level, there is cause for the Prime Minister to think he is adopting the correct strategy. Loss aversion remains a powerful voting motivation. Environmentalists may feel unconcerned about mandates to compel people to adopt electric vehicles or heat pumps, but a climate argument can also be made for further regulations on areas with more popular support.
Many would chafe at the idea the government could dictate what they serve on their dinner plate or how they spend their holiday. The fact that neither the government nor Labour committed to new taxes on meat and aviation did not stop Sunak from proclaiming he had scrapped them – manufactured red meat designed to appeal to the right.
Behavioural change is crucial to the net zero transition, and efforts to halt climate change are likely to fail without it. However, for policymakers a fundamental question must be answered. Should the government go beyond encouraging behavioural change, and compel it? Is the stick needed as well as the carrot?
Sunak’s speech can be viewed in the context of this wider moral and political debate. Consent was a theme which ran throughout the set piece, and he has clearly set out where he stands around the issue of freedom of choice. It is a concept that resonates.
Many commentators have dismissed the speech as an attempt to pander to the sceptical wing of the Conservative party. In reality, Sunak has wrapped himself in the cloak of autonomy, a garment that can drape over a much wider constituency of voters. Liberals have long rallied to the call of individual rights and freedoms, and Sunak has made ‘government by consent’ the driving force behind his new net zero approach.
‘Government by consent’ is an idea that runs throughout the heart of our political discourse and democratic institutions. Labour must understand this and realise the appeal it can have to voters. The party must take seriously the risk that shy Tories help the government to outperform its meagre poll ratings.
Rishi Sunak has taken a gamble to resurrect his political fortunes. He believes a new approach to net zero based on costs and consent can enhance his election prospects. The Prime Minister still faces an uphill battle, but many are underestimating his chance of success.
For Labour to end 13 years of Conservative rule, Keir Starmer needs to successfully outline a vision of future green prosperity, and convince people of the jobs and wealth that can flow from clean technologies. Worryingly for him, the general population don’t currently seem to be inspired by anyone.