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Will the Tories’ Net Zero gamble pay off?

Rishi Sunak has taken a more sceptical approach to Net Zero than his Tory predecessors in No. 10. Credit: Getty

November 6, 2023 - 3:40pm

Tomorrow’s King’s Speech is likely the last chance the Tories will have to place items on the legislative agenda before the next election. With no more than 14 months left before going to the electorate, few parts of the speech are going to have the parliamentary time to make it to the statute books, but the Government still has the opportunity tomorrow to frame the run-up to the next election. One nod to this is a slew of proposed legislation around Net Zero. 

A flagship policy around the environment has been trailed in leaks ahead of the big speech, concerning the awarding of oil exploration licences for the North Sea. Under the new law, licences would have to be offered each year, rather than at the discretion of the current government. This would prevent any new Labour ministry from kicking licensing into the long grass, and undermine a planned push towards renewables. 

It’s a smart use of legislation to bind an opponent. More than that, however, it’s a signal that the Tories want to take the fight around the environment to the next election. After Uxbridge and Ulez, they see a chance to scupper Labour by focusing on the costs of environmentalism and painting the Opposition as in hock to provocateurs like Just Stop Oil

This makes sense in the current electoral climate, but it is a tricky line for the Conservatives to manage. Most polling shows overwhelming support for Net Zero as a concept — there is no great reserve of climate scepticism among British voters. Environmentalism is largely a default view, especially among some of the better-off wavering voters the Tories might fear losing to the Lib Dems. The flipside of this is a reticence around specific policies

Voters are sceptical of some of the measures posited for achieving Net Zero. Ulez has shown this, as well as the now-constant freeze on fuel duty. Voters are wary about the proposed ban on petrol and diesel car sales, the move towards heat pumps and other green initiatives that seem costly and restrictive. There is some leverage here for the Tories. 

It will, however, be a hard battle for them to win, as the cost-of-living crisis has already tarnished their ability to talk about defending people from energy prices. Indeed, the party’s declining reputation makes it hard for it to say anything that people will listen to. Equally, there’s a chance the Conservatives tie themselves in knots — Net Zero was made law by Theresa May, and exuberantly endorsed by Boris Johnson. There are many environmentalists in the party who may challenge Number 10’s message on this. 

Making a success of the issue will need deft political management, something which seems in short supply in the current Tory Party. There’s every possibility it could be an effective wedge between people’s professed desires around the environment and the policies required — but also every chance it could unravel, alienating moderate voters, causing nasty spats within the party and failing to land a blow on Labour. 

Perhaps the best the Tories can hope for is using this as red meat to shore up the base. Fighting over Net Zero is unlikely to win over moderates but may pull out some of the voters in suburban seats the Tories need to avoid a defeat becoming a rout. The party should be wary, though: in Australia it was climate policy that helped secure a drubbing for the centre-right. 

Really, the biggest concern for this administration, with what is very likely to be its last King’s Speech, is whether anything can be done to arrest its decline. A year isn’t much time to pass legislation or to achieve policy goals, but it’s more than enough time for a government to unravel.


John Oxley is a corporate strategist and political commentator. His Substack is Joxley Writes.

Mr_John_Oxley

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Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
8 months ago

I might be mistaken, but was it not the Tories who introduced all this net zero legislation? So now we’re supposed to believe they will undo it all. The best they can do is take their beating, dump all the dead weight and start fresh. Opposition to net zero will be a big vote winner, no question, but it requires believable voices.

Also, can we please stop with the narrative that polling shows overwhelming support for net zero. It doesn’t. That support completely evaporates the second you attach costs to the program.

Last edited 8 months ago by Jim Veenbaas
Walter Marvell
Walter Marvell
8 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Well said about the polls Jim. It was the current Fake Tories and in particular the Proud Woke Fool May who unleashed the legally binding mad 50 year commitment and the Idiot CCC Diktat Godplan Bureaucrats upon us…with zero debate and zero costing. But the climate insanity began with Bacon Face Ed limply blindly following the EU’s lead in 2008/9..result…no nukes and no energy resilience. If Rishi keeps the windfall taxes on oil producers and does not immediately drop the impending deranged penalties upon car manufacturers then this will be an endgame DISASTER for him. They cannot do a Boris – make promises and not get the deal done. Smash the Net Zero excesses now or be exposed as total charlatans. This is a very big test.

Mike Michaels
Mike Michaels
8 months ago
Reply to  Walter Marvell

Not a woke fool just bought like the rest of them. Paid in full via lucrative after dinner speaking jobs post resignation. Who would pay to listen to that woman? In what world?
Passed Net Zero into law and attempted to sabotage the Brexit vote. Very nearly succeeding. She served her masters well.

Robbie K
Robbie K
8 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

It’s only a vote winner with the marginalised far right, such as much of the audience here.

Peter B
Peter B
8 months ago
Reply to  Robbie K

I don’t buy that. This isn’t a static situation either. Once people connect up the dots, I expect a lot of opinions may change and quite rapidly.
Not convinced that the readership/commentators here are “far right” either.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
8 months ago
Reply to  Robbie K

I think most people both left and right would sooner see emery bills come down and for some resilience to be built into the nations power supply

Roddy Campbell
Roddy Campbell
8 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Yes, that would smooth things a bit.

Last edited 8 months ago by Roddy Campbell
Martin M
Martin M
8 months ago
Reply to  Roddy Campbell

Very good!

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
8 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Labour’s 2008 Climate Change Act started the rot.
https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2008/27/contents

Peter B
Peter B
8 months ago

They should have done this years ago. Instead, they not only sat back and did nothing, they actually fed the monster that Net Zero has become. They could have cut out a credible position of “eco realism” based on practical and realistic energy transition policies that don’t load needless excessive costs onto industry and homeowners. And got on with commissioning British designed and built nuclear power stations – if we’d started in 2010, we might actually have something up and running. Instead, we’re still a decade off a 1/3 functional HS2.
But no. They sat back and let eco fundamentalists control the agenda.
They deserve all the punishment that’s shortly coming their way for their gross dereliction of duty here since 2010.
Best thing now is to let the Net Zero madness self-destruct. Under Labour.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
8 months ago
Reply to  Peter B

Perfectly put sir.

Derek Smith
Derek Smith
8 months ago
Reply to  Peter B

‘Instead they sat back and fed the monster’ could apply to any number of crucial issues involving this current government.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
8 months ago

Here is a sneak peek at how all this net zero garbage rolls out. In Canada, the Trudeau Liberals have implemented crippling carbon taxes on fossil fuels – gasoline taxes and fuels like natural gas and home heating oil.

This has sparked outrage in places like Alberta, where virtually all heating is natural gas, and places like Atlantic Canada, where home heating oil is dominant. Because the Liberals won 24 of 36 seats in Atlantic Canada, they recently granted a three-year exemption on home heating oil. No exemption for Alberta of course because the Liberals won zero seats there – even though natural gas emits 30% less CO2. So now the entire country is questioning the Liberal Party’s actual commitment to net zero – even people in Atlantic Canada.

Expect the same in Britain. Labour will limp along with their supposed commitment to net zero, and carve out a bunch of politically motivated exemptions – until the whole thing implodes on itself. Meanwhile, we are left with the damage already caused by this slow motion disaster. We can only hope the damage isn’t long term.

S Wilkinson
S Wilkinson
8 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

And, of course, it will continue to occupy all the bandwidth that should be occupied by building a realistic and resilient energy infrastructure and strategy.

Matt M
Matt M
8 months ago

Well worth your time is to seek out the ARC conference contributions on global warming. Michael Shellenberger, Bjorn Lomborg, Alex Epstein and Marian Tupy were all excellent.
To sum up their thoughts:
global warming is little threat to humanity,
its dangers have been wildly exaggerated,
the environment is improving all the time and deaths from weather related events have fallen rapidly,
the effects of global warming are easily mitigated, fossil fuels have and will continue to lift people out of poverty and improve our everyday lives,
there is no “peak commodity” – superabundance is possible,
gas, petrol and electricity prices are rising due to “net zero” policies,
the only useful “green policies” are nuclear fisson and R&D into new technologies.
If we want to help the Third World there are many much better things to do than “net zero” such as:
Better obstetric care in developing world
Tuberculosis vaccination and treatment
Tablets and software to schools in developing world
Agricultural R&D
Malaria prevention and treatment
Land tenure improvement

Last edited 8 months ago by Matt M
Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
8 months ago

Actions speak louder than words. The behaviour of both Tory and Labour politicians, civil servants and Dominic Cummings, Neil Ferguson etc in flouting the very regulations they sought for our protection reveals that they didn’t believe the rhetoric of fear they spread Similarly there would be no private jets and Davos meetings if the message of net zero was actually believed by its proponents as opposed to a few crazed activists.

Anna Bramwell
Anna Bramwell
8 months ago
Reply to  Jeremy Bray

It’s clear that the non West doesnt believe in it at all.

Peter B
Peter B
8 months ago
Reply to  Anna Bramwell

They probably benefit from going along with it though as they get a competitive advantage over the West since we get to go first and bear the bulk of the costs.

R M
R M
8 months ago

As with all rhetorical headlines, the answer is clearly No.
The Tories are toast because swing, centrist and soft blue voters have not unreasonably concluded they are a hopeless shower of sh*te and are determined to punish them for it. This happens from time to time.
The more interesting question is whether they can find their way back this time. In the past such speculation was easily dismissed as leftish wishful-thinking, but something could be different now.
Labour are likely to win the 2024 election by a big enough majority to put the next one after that out of the Conservative’s reach. The rate at which Tory core support is aging and, inevitably, dying off means that in 10 years time they could be little more than a rump.
Of course its long been true that Tory support trends older than Labour. But in the past people became more conservative as they got older and took on responsibilities like home ownership, starting a business etc. With home ownership having declined significantly among younger voters, its unlikely so many will make the same journey in the future. In other words, the Tories catastrophically low standing among currently young voters is far less likely to change as those voters age and remain in rented accommodation, public sector jobs etc.
I’m not betting that we won’t see another Conservative Party government in the UK, at least in the present form of those two things. But I’m not betting against it either.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
8 months ago
Reply to  R M

Exactly, the things that made people more conservative as the aged such as homeownership, families and secure employment have become much rarer under the Tories. People aren’t going to become conservative if they have been unable to acquire anything to conserve.
Running the property market like a Ponzi scheme, making having children cripplingly expensive and allowing work to become poorly paid and precarious through immigration and the gig economy means the Tories deserve to be cast into oblivion.
The only downside is I don’t see Labour doing any better

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
8 months ago

Surely this legislation in no way “binds” Labour to anything, as they can simply repeal it the minute they form a government. One of the joys of the British system is it’s utter simplicity, in that the government can largely do as it pleases in making or repealing laws as long as it can convince a majority of Parliament to do so

R M
R M
8 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

The current government can’t bind the next in a legal sense but they can leave them entangled in the weeds in a practical sense.

Making and repealing laws takes time, effort and political capital, all of which are in limited supply for any government. Parliamentary time spent unpicking a load of laws left by the previous government means other priorities don’t get done.

It will also mean that the next Labour government will have to own net zero measures which could be unpopular with some voters. It will be Labour having those arguments, rather than simply inheriting the status quo.

None of this will save the Conservatives in 2024. Its just part of the total war approach to weaponising the whole political process.

Last edited 8 months ago by R M
Ernesto Candelabra
Ernesto Candelabra
8 months ago

I recall a piece of opinion polling which tested support for an independent Scotland and found very solid support for the proposition. However, Support collapsed as soon as the following condition was added; would you back independence if it cost you £1000?

This the way it will play out with net zero. Any party that makes clear that it’s going to cost each of us a great deal more than £1000, then bins net zero will do very well electorally.

In the meantime there is no-one to vote for.

Jonathan Story
Jonathan Story
8 months ago

Also not a problem. Make the point that the transition to net zero is vital, and the transition should not be at the expense of economic viability. If , as will happen, net zero fanatics, say, oh, you must be paid by Big Oil, say No: The UK needs a viable economic base. For that it needs energy. The main sources of energy are carbon. We have lots of it. So we are going to develop it. And this is the predicted benefit. ie stop p…ss..g about.

Matt F
Matt F
8 months ago

“in Australia it was climate policy that helped secure a drubbing for the centre-right”. Not really – it was mostly so for those voters who’d no intention of voting for them in any case. The bulk of the electorate were simply tired of Scott Morrison’s rather unprincipled populism and wanted a change.

Last edited 8 months ago by Matt F
Anna Bramwell
Anna Bramwell
8 months ago

Isnt there still a 75@ tax on oil companies?

Robbie K
Robbie K
8 months ago

Sunak is hugely mistake if he he thinks rolling back on Net Zero commitments is going to reverse his fortunes.
By pointing at the cost and difficulties of concepts such as electric cars and heat pumps, it merely demonstrates how inadequate their preparation has been in mismanaging the planning and implementation of a critical policy.
I’m unlikely to vote for anyone else, but I will certainly abstain.

Caradog Wiliams
Caradog Wiliams
8 months ago
Reply to  Robbie K

You could be right about the mismanagement but do you honestly believe that ANY government could manage such an issue. The proposed change to our society in the next 25 years (I think) is literally unmanageable, except by means of a dictatorship.
It is just wishful thinking to believe that our version of democracy can manage such a change. Who will take over? What brain/leader can do it?
What is required is that a government tells the truth. “We want to do this. This is what we expect from you.” It won’t happen.
By the way, I believe in global warming. But not NetZero which is a confidence trick. We should combat global warming but only by telling the truth, something which doesn’t go well with ANY politician.

Peter B
Peter B
8 months ago

Don’t agree with all your views, but you make a key point that there is a spread spectrum of beliefs. You can believe in responsible enery usage, recycling and sustainability without necessarily believing in climate change or Net Zero (just as you believe in climate change, but not Net Zero). And indeed, taking the less “complete” and fundamentalist position may ultimately yield better results.
As it is, we seem to be in a position (as with all the identity politics stuff) where you start up agreeing with ‘LG’ and before you know it, it’s assumed that you’re good for the rest of the ever expanding LGBTQ… alphabet soup. It’s basically just coercion by more extreme groups – “if you’re not with us, you m,ust be against us”.
When we’re proposing policies with this scope and impact on everyone in society (and where some will ultimately beat the costs and other emerge unscathed), we really should be basing the approach more around concensus than coercion. We are experiencing managed democracy here. Another awful legacy from Blair and New Labour.

Anna Bramwell
Anna Bramwell
8 months ago
Reply to  Peter B

Please dont call it climate change when you mean AGW. Only an idiot, Michael Mann and the UEA think, or claim to think the climate has never changed since the end of the Ice Age.

Peter B
Peter B
8 months ago
Reply to  Anna Bramwell

Apologies ! Yes, I probably meant AGW. Climate change always happens regardless of what we do.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
8 months ago

If they truly believed in catastrophic climate change and net zero, they would be rolling out nuclear energy in a big way.