DANIEL JOHNSON: Cut net-zero rhetoric and start listening to the voters
If there is one lesson that Rishi Sunak must take away from last week’s by-elections, it is that voters cannot be bullied into embracing unpopular green policies such as Ulez or net zero.
Holding on in Uxbridge and South Ruislip has given the Conservatives a glimmer of hope that they could yet turn the tables on a reinvigorated Labour.
But the Prime Minister will only justify that hope if he is prepared to act boldly to put clear blue water between himself and Keir Starmer – by abandoning punitive policies or arbitrary environmental targets, taxes and regulations.
The bad news is that the Government is still wedded to a whole range of these measures, from banning new petrol cars by 2030 to replacing fossil fuels with renewables on a timetable that cannot be met without hardship.
If there is one lesson that Rishi Sunak must take away from last week’s by-elections, it is that voters cannot be bullied into embracing unpopular green policies such as Ulez or net zero
Holding on in Uxbridge and South Ruislip has given the Conservatives a glimmer of hope that they could yet turn the tables on a reinvigorated Labour
To penalise innocent people for driving to work or heating their homes would be intolerable even in normal times. To do so during a cost of living crisis, when many are dreading fuel poverty next winter, is electoral suicide.
The good news, as the Mail reveals today, is that Mr Sunak appears to be beginning to listen. Sir Keir Starmer, however, is surrounded by green zealots such as Ed Miliband. Mr Miliband, the Shadow Climate Change Secretary, had pledged to spend £28billion on accelerating the already over-ambitious drive to net zero, though even spendthrift Labour now admit such vast sums may not be practical.
Sir Keir is engaged in a carefully staged spat with the London Mayor over the extension of the Ulez scheme – the capital’s ultra-low emissions zone – after it was blamed for the loss in Uxbridge. But he has also accepted £1.5million from Dale Vince, a wealthy supporter of Just Stop Oil, the hardline environmental protest group.
Indeed, Sir Keir has just shown how far he is in hock to this and other extremist organisations by promising to ban new drilling for oil and gas in the North Sea – thereby forcing us to buy more of these fuels elsewhere.
By contrast, Michael Gove ‘gets it’. The Levelling Up Secretary said at the weekend that ‘if people think that you are treating the cause of the environment as a religious crusade, in which you’re dividing the world into goodies and baddies, then you alienate the support you need for thoughtful environmentalism’. We have been here before. Back in 2013, David Cameron told officials: ‘We have got to get rid of all the green c**p.’ Two years later, he won the election.
This time, the Conservatives are in an even tighter spot. Last week they lost two normally ‘safe’ seats, with an average swing of over 20 per cent.
But it is the ‘Ulez by-election’ in Uxbridge that has excited Westminster. This victory – a surprise to the Tory high command – was due to an excellent local campaign focused on the Ulez extension, which for many will mean a £12.50 a day tax on driving in the outer London boroughs.
Former Uxbridge MP Boris Johnson rightly praised the Conservative candidate, Steve Tuckwell, rather than Mr Sunak. The result had little to do with the PM, but everything to do with loathing of the London Mayor.
Sadiq Khan’s blithe indifference to the misery he is causing evidently galvanised Uxbridge to vote against his party. Could this single issue template work for the Conservative Party nationally? The answer is: only if the PM can convince people he understands their economic hardship.
Sir Keir Starmer, however, is surrounded by green zealots such as Ed Miliband
Newly elected Labour MP Keir Mather (left), with Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer at Selby football club
All over Europe, the backlash against green fanaticism is destroying establishment politicians – most recently in The Netherlands, where centre-Right Prime Minister Mark Rutte has just been ousted after ten years in office. Mr Sunak could easily follow him into oblivion – unless he ditches the boilerplate net zero rhetoric and starts listening to voters.
The PM must make it clear that he backs cutting red tape over pushing green ideology. He needs to offer practical policies to persuade people to stop pollution or limit climate change, rather than bureaucratic diktats that ignore the struggles of those who are forced to live with them.
For the Prime Minister to stand a chance of reversing Tory fortunes, he must attack Labour relentlessly as the party of net zero lunacy – the party of punitive charges and fines, rather than generous incentives.
If Rishi isn’t ruthless enough to nail Sir Keir for ramming greenery down the voters’ throats, then next year the Conservatives will find their challenge at the ballot box all the more insurmountable.
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