The Ulez row speaks to the greatest governing challenge of all

Green commitments will require the next prime minister to rise above short-term political expediency. But that is easier said than done

July 27, 2023
Image: Martin Bond / Alamy Stock Photo
Image: Martin Bond / Alamy Stock Photo

It would be perverse if Britain’s transition to a low-carbon economy stalled because the Conservatives held Uxbridge and South Ruislip by 495 votes—not least because nearly twice that number voted for the Green Party.  

If the byelection in Boris Johnson’s old west London seat was a referendum on Labour plans to levy charges on the most polluting cars (and that was certainly the tenor of the Tory campaign), the verdict was not decisive.

But there is a Conservative faction that is suspicious of all environmental policies, and especially ones that hit voters’ wallets. Also, there is a prime minister in Downing Street who is running out of ways to palliate a cost-of-living crisis and desperate for something—anything—that looks like an escape route from annihilation at the next general election. Combined, those forces steer the Tories away from judgements in Britain’s long-term strategic interest and towards the instant gratification of tactically targeted voters. It is a dilemma inherent in democratic politics but, in the context of climate change, there is an exceptional obligation on leaders to resolve it in favour of responsible governance.

Rishi Sunak is drawn to the lower path: letting carbon-reduction targets slide, attacking Labour as the party of burdensome green taxes and, in the most hysterical expression, casting Keir Starmer as an accomplice to eco-fanatics who disrupt sporting events and glue themselves to motorways. 

Starmer is vulnerable to these attacks: a tranche of swing voters retain a lingering suspicion that Labour takes pleasure in confiscating their incomes and blowing the proceeds in pursuit of pious left-wing moral crusades, detached from ordinary folk’s concerns. Dread of that charge and its amplification by Conservative-supporting newspapers has the opposition in a defensive crouch. 

The Labour leader is quick to jettison policy if he thinks it softens him up for Tory attack. That is electorally shrewd in some cases, but demoralising for party loyalists who have ethical attachment to ideas that the leadership deems disposable.

Expansion of Labour’s ultra-low emission zone (Ulez) is a case in point. Starmer’s allies are convinced that Sadiq Khan’s anti-pollution charge lost Uxbridge. The London mayor is under pressure to dilute the policy to prevent something similar happening in other target seats. But the capital’s filthy air is killing people. 

Defenders of Ulez point out that it isn’t some vague carbon-reduction target, with the benefit accruing to the whole globe by means of hypothetical catastrophe averted for future generations. It is about not poisoning children now—a palpable improvement in quality of life. (Also, Boris Johnson was in favour of the idea when he was mayor.) If the opposition can’t get on the front foot and make an argument for breathable air, what can they sell? 

There are also Conservatives who see anti-green reaction as shabby and irresponsible. Tory MPs who recognise the urgency of cutting emissions outnumber the sceptics in parliament. The war in Ukraine has given strategic urgency to the task of cultivating renewable power as a means to independence from Russian hydrocarbons. 

Tories who once decried windmills as pointless eyesores can now see their virtue as features of a more secure energy landscape. But that doesn’t mean erecting them in Conservative constituencies. Crucially, the most stubborn sceptics are also the most effective lobbyists. The Tory backbench Net Zero Scrutiny Group is essentially a sequel caucus to the European Research Group—a reconditioned model of the parliamentary engine that drove the party towards ever-harder iterations of Brexit. 

If the opposition can’t make an argument for breathable air, what can they sell?

Rishi Sunak is capable of resisting that kind of pressure. He has imposed significant Brexit compromises on Eurosceptic ultras, most notably the Windsor Framework for easing problems with the Northern Ireland protocol. But in that case, the prime minister saw an obvious benefit to himself. Better relations with Brussels released immediate political dividends. 

The cost-benefit equation is less clear with climate policy. Although the moral and strategic case for acting now is unanswerable, the upside largely accrues in a future where Sunak is probably not in Downing Street. Banning the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030, for example, might be a good way to force change in the market and accelerate the transition to electric vehicles, but for buyers looking at Tesla prices today and worrying about the lifespan of their dilapidated Ford Focus it can look like punishment for having an old car. 

Sunak sounds a lot more cagey in defence of that target, and others, than his more environmentally committed colleagues would like. This is not a new phenomenon. As chancellor, Sunak did not rush to lend Treasury engine capacity to Johnson’s flights of eco-fancy. 

When newly installed as Tory leader last autumn, Sunak’s first instinct was not to bother going to the COP27 climate summit in Sharm el-Sheikh. He was bounced into attendance by criticism of the no-show. On arrival, the speech he made was a bland, unmemorable précis of UK climate policy to date. He has barely revisited the subject. There was no room for the climate in the famous five pledges, set out in January as the defining purpose of his ministry. 

That omission reflects the short-term focus of an administration that was formed 12 years into a Conservative incumbency, with poll ratings flagging and an election looming on the horizon. 

Sunak presented himself on the steps of Downing Street as a competent technocrat, hired to repair damage inflicted by maverick predecessors. That was easy to say. He quickly felt the conflict between his ambition to look managerial and the need to keep his party united while also clawing back support from a slippery Labour opponent. 

Faced with a choice between high-minded policy development and low tactical blows, Sunak prefers the latter. In the climate context, a swerve away from long-term thinking happens also to suit his ideological intuitions. The prime minister is a more orthodox, small-state free-market conservative than Johnson. 

He was pragmatic enough to overcome that instinct during the pandemic, using public money to pay the wages of furloughed workers, but that was a necessary political expedient. The climate crisis contains a more challenging demand for sustained state engagement with questions of economic management. 

This is something that Joe Biden has understood, and made the centrepiece of his flagship Inflation Reduction Act—a massive fiscal intervention to build economic resilience around low-carbon industries. Rachel Reeves, the shadow chancellor, has taken Biden’s approach as the model for her own fiscally expansive—to the tune of £28bn per year—industrial strategy for green growth.

Reeves argues that this approach is part of an emerging consensus. Bidenomics, she says, is the replacement doctrine for a laissez-faire liberalism that has proved unequal to the task of equipping western societies for the challenges of the 21st century. 

Sunak is not convinced. Conservative campaign strategists think Labour’s talk of a “green industrial revolution” can be configured to the opposition’s electoral detriment as a cultish indulgence of waste and debt. Starmer and Reeves have pre-emptively flinched, insisting that big budget increases will be phased in over time. (Having Ed Miliband, a proven election loser, available for attack as green evangelist in the shadow cabinet gives Tories added confidence that the issue is an open target on Starmer’s soft-left flank.)

For Downing Street, there is an alignment of ideological prejudice and tactical advantage pointing away from the mission of decarbonisation. And even if the prime minister remains loosely committed to net zero in principle, a lack of drive from Number 10 inevitably leads to drift and neglect throughout the government machine.

This issue represents more than a test of Conservative strategy. It reaches to the heart of a problem that arises when the long-term interests of a country are misaligned with the short-term demands of an electoral cycle. And that, at its core, expresses a tension between the imperative of strategic patience and the demands of instant consumer gratification in the operation of representative democracy. It is sometimes necessary to impose unpopular costs today in exchange for deferred public benefits. 

But winning a political argument on those terms requires strong leadership with an undisputed mandate to take hard decisions, and a disciplined party united behind the ultimate goal. British politics currently enjoys none of those conditions.

When deciding whether to slow the transition to a low-carbon economy, Sunak is confronting a choice between an ethos of sound government, which he once claimed as his lodestar, and the calculations of cynical, bare-knuckle electoral combat that panic and desperation invite him to embrace.

To pick the right path requires a level of courage that the prime minister has not yet shown. More worrying still, there is very little evidence that he even understands what is at stake.