Rishi Sunak’s climate backlash

Guest post by Professor Matthew Paterson, reflecting on whether recent interventions by UK prime minister Rishi Sunak signal a shift in British climate politics, also drawing a comparison between the ‘Mondeo Man’ class and gender signifier of the 1990s, and Sunak’s press moment where he was photographed in Margaret Thatcher’s ‘old Rover’.

Rishi Sunak has made several interventions in the last two weeks that seem to signal a distinct shift in direction from his government, undermining support for enhanced climate action in the UK, and even unravelling some existing forms of action. He has announced a review of Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTN) policies, attacked the expansion of the Ultra-Low Emissions Zone (Ulez) in London and used it as an attack issue in the Uxbridge by-election, approved new licences for North Sea oil and gas, and more broadly raised questions about both other areas of climate policy like the 2030 petrol/diesel phase out date, heat pumps, and is visibly relaxed as to whether all these changes threaten achievement of the UK’s net zero targets.

The Conservative government in the UK seems to have decided that climate action is now a ‘wedge’ issue in the coming general election. That is, they think that it is an issue that they can signal to key parts of the electorate a clear difference between them and Labour. This would mark a distinct shift in British climate politics, which has mostly been consensual between the two main parties, and electoral competition has focused on performance in climate policy instead of climate policy as a goal per se.

Given the parlous situation the Conservatives face in the polls, running consistently 20 percentage points behind Labour for nearly a year now (with an election to take place in January 2025 at the latest), it is perhaps not a surprise that they are seeking to generate issues around which they can attack Labour. It is also the case that within the Conservative party, there has been a fairly substantial mobilisation against ‘net zero’, focused on the Net Zero Scrutiny Group established in 2021 by Steve Baker and Craig McKinlay. Baker is currently a cabinet minister. There are countervailing forces in the Conservative Environment Network, but key members of that (most notably Chris Skidmore) have said they will be standing down at the next election. Given Sunak’s still precarious position holding a highly fractious Conservative caucus together, responding to such pressure is probably something he cannot avoid. 

If you look at overall opinion polling, climate change would not seem to be a particularly useful target for such attacks, as the public is still broadly in favour of more aggressive action on the issue. It is also striking that Sunak has taken this decision in the midst of ongoing extraordinary evidence of accelerating dangerous climate impacts – from the heatwave across central Europe and fires especially in Greece (not to say Canada for much of this year), temperature records not just been broken but smashed both this and last year, the Antarctic sea ice levels falling off a cliff, just to name a few. 

But the opinion polls are misleading for two reasons. One is that while public opinion in favour of climate change action is strong, it is ‘soft’. Pollsters will say it has ‘low salience’. This means that it is relatively easy for people to be in favour of climate action in public opinion polls and simultaneously to be mobilised against Ulez, LTNs, and perhaps other aspects of climate policy. Heat pumps and the petrol/diesel phaseout are the most likely targets.

The other is the evidence the Conservatives think that their surprising success in the Uxbridge by-election has given them. This was framed by them as a referendum on the expansion of Ulez in London (leave aside that it was a Conservative idea originally) and seems to have worked. So they have some evidence (even though by-elections are rarely really useful indicators of what might happen in a general election) that significant numbers of voters in particular seats might be swayed by the way that the Conservatives can frame intensified climate action as threatening certain aspects of their ‘way of life’. This then explains Sunak’s quick shift from Ulez to low traffic neighbourhoods as a target, and a broad shift to ‘being on the side of motorists’. 

This framing in terms of motorists and their interests has powerful resonance in political life. It recalls the 1997 election, which Labour and Conservatives fought over winning the votes of ‘Mondeo Man’, the signifier for the key demographic of target voters. In 2023, Sunak engaged similar pieces of cultural signification – being pictured not just in a car itself, but in ‘Margaret Thatcher’s old Rover’, ‘talking about freedom’, and how important cars are ‘for families’.

In 1997, this framing of such voters via both their specific car (identifying class and gender in particular) but more importantly that they vote as car drivers, occurred on the back of sustained direct action protests against road building and car culture during the 1990s. In 2023, it has for context similarly sustained forms of climate direct action activism, which have frequently entailed focusing on car culture, whether through the blocking of bridges in central London as the first Extinction Rebellion action, or Just Stop Oil disrupting motorways.

That Sunak has sent UK climate policy on a highly dangerous track is obvious. Whether or not he succeeds probably depends on the ability to mobilise these cultural articulations with cars in particular in a more sustained way. The oil and gas focus is clearly important for the sets of immediate economic interests the Conservatives clearly identify with. But it will not resonate in the same way as the ‘culture war’ attacks defending ‘motorists’. It doesn’t touch on daily life in the ways that Ulez or LTNs do, so people connect oil and gas readily to their positive image of climate action but with few of the negatives. Under Truss, they even tried to get rid of the fracking moratorium but that got quickly walked back and abandoned under Sunak – fracking is very unpopular across the UK. So they may founder on this particular decision. Here, climate campaigners and those facing the Conservatives at the ballot box will have relatively easy arguments, but with the Conservatives shifting to ‘defend motorists’ more directly, it will be tougher.

Bio: Matthew is a Professor of International Politics and Director of the Sustainable Consumption Institute. His research and teaching focuses on environmental politics, especially climate change politics. Matthew is interested in the fundamental question of the challenges that dramatic environmental change poses to existing political institutions and structures, and what drives the responses of those systems to the unsustainability of the current world order. His latest book ‘In Search of Climate Politics‘ was published in 2021 by Cambridge University Press.

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