Sunak briefs Cabinet as he prepares to water down net zero plans

Rishi Sunak appears poised to announce the watering down of climate change commitments despite a backlash from industry and the prospect of a damaging rift in the Tory party.

The Prime Minister held a hastily arranged call with Cabinet ministers on Wednesday after speculation about his net zero plans emerged on Tuesday night.

A speech had been due to take place later this week but the decision to brief Cabinet ministers suggests the announcement could be brought forward.

With an eye on a general election expected next year, the Prime Minister risks triggering a bitter Tory row with the move, which has dismayed the environmental wing of his party but delighted those who fear the price of going green will cost votes.

Home Secretary Suella Braverman, a key figure on the Conservative right, backed the Prime Minister for making “difficult decisions” on net zero and putting “household costs first”.

“We’re not going to save the planet by bankrupting the British people,” she told Times Radio.

Mr Sunak has said he will set out a “proportionate” approach to cutting emissions but will maintain the overall commitment to reaching net zero by 2050.

Measures being considered include weakening the plan to phase out gas boilers from 2035 and delaying the ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars – currently due in 2030 – by five years, the BBC reported.

In a statement, Mr Sunak said his plans would not be derailed by a “leak”, claiming politicians “of all stripes have not been honest about costs and trade-offs” associated with net zero.

He accused previous Tory governments of taking “the easy way out, saying we can have it all”.

Mr Sunak, who is attempting to draw a dividing line with Labour before the next general election, sought to position himself as the bringer of “real change” who will “put the long-term interests of our country before the short-term political needs of the moment”.

The prospect of a major shift in the Conservatives’ approach was swiftly condemned by the green wing of the party.

Former Cop26 president Sir Alok Sharma warned that watering down the commitments could cost the Tories votes.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I think it’d be incredibly damaging for business confidence, for inward investment, if the political consensus that we have forged in our country on the environment and climate action is fractured.

“And, frankly, I really do not believe that it’s going to help any political party electorally which chooses to go down this path.”

Sir Alok said delays on policies such as banning new petrol and diesel cars could mean tougher curbs in other areas.

Conservative former Cabinet minister Sir Simon Clarke said it is in the Tories’ “environmental, economic, moral and (yes) political interests” to lead on net zero “rather than disown it”.

Some Tory MPs are considering writing letters of no confidence in the Prime Minister if he goes ahead with the changes, the PA news agency understands.

Chris Skidmore, a Conservative former energy minister who led a government-commissioned review on net zero, told PA: “Rishi Sunak still has time to think again and not make the greatest mistake of his premiership, condemning the UK to missing out on what can be the opportunity of the decade to deliver growth, jobs and future prosperity.”

Tory peer Zac Goldsmith, who quit as environment minister in June with a scathing attack on Mr Sunak’s “apathy” on the green agenda, said: “His short stint as PM will be remembered as the moment the UK turned its back on the world and on future generations. A moment of shame.”

But Craig Mackinlay, leader of the Tory Net Zero Scrutiny Group which has been sceptical of the Government’s policies, said the expected announcements by Mr Sunak are “sensible and pragmatic”.

“I hope to mark this down as a sensible win for consumers,” he said, claiming his group’s “research and representations” may have influenced the move.

Tory Karl McCartney, a member of the Commons Transport Select Committee, said he had pushed the Government to delay the ban on new petrol and diesel cars, bringing it in line with the European Union, which has moved the date to 2035.

“The only people who will complain about this delay are the central London eco-zealots who do not live in the real world and are rich enough not to be affected,” he said.

Ulez sign
The Tories’ campaign against Ulez expansion is widely credited with helping them win the Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election (Yui Mok/PA)

The party’s success in the summer’s Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election, won largely through a campaign against the expansion of the ultra-low emission zone (Ulez), has bolstered Tory calls to shun costly green policies.

The Prime Minister could reportedly also axe plans for new energy-efficiency targets for private rented homes.

Liberal Democrat climate and energy spokeswoman Wera Hobhouse said the Prime Minister has “cowered to the delayers and deniers like the disgraced Liz Truss and adopted wholesale their policies”.

Shadow energy secretary Ed Miliband said: “This is a complete farce from a Tory Government that literally does not know what they are doing day to day.”

Friends of the Earth’s head of policy, Mike Childs, said: “Rolling back on key climate commitments as the world is being battered by extreme flooding and wildfires would be morally indefensible.”

The potential policy shift also alarmed the car industry, which has invested on the basis of a 2030 shift away from petrol and diesel.

Ford UK chairwoman Lisa Brankin said: “Our business needs three things from the UK Government: ambition, commitment and consistency.

“A relaxation of 2030 would undermine all three.”