Here’s what we know about Sunak now: where the anti-green extremists lead, he will follow
Polly Toynbee/ The Guardian:
he imagery is unfortunate. Our prime minister, Rishi Sunak, was apparently spotted in a gym at 7am in Santa Monica, California – where his family owns a £5.5m penthouse in a building with its own pet spa – pedalling away at an indoor SoulCycle session to Taylor Swift music. Pedalling like fury and going nowhere.
Back in Blighty, staycationers may or may not brave the sea where, to Britain’s international shame, 57 world triathlon athletes in Sunderland have just fallen sick after competing in swimming events in our filthy, sewage-tainted waters. On holiday in East Sussex, I watched the Conservatives lose power last week to Liberal Democrats in a county council byelection that tipped this deep blue county’s council into a position of no overall control. They lost the Eastbourne ward of Meads, where the politics professor Tim Bale lives. “Wide implications here,” he says. “Tory since time began, it’s Eastbourne’s richest suburb, average age 60.” Rishi Sunak’s anti-green gesturing cut no ice here.
No doubt while he’s on his gym bike Sunak, an assiduous data consumer, absorbs news from back in his other home. However hard he pedals it just gets worse. NHS waiting lists are likely to go on rising. The Bank of England expects an extra 350,000 people to become unemployed. Interest rates will stay high, meaning more people in mortgage hell by election day. Housebuilding has slumped. Insolvencies are up by 40%. There are empty shops for all to see. It’s no surprise that the birthrate is falling as rent and nursery fees soar, while the public sector decays. How can he face an election with that record? Ah, green wars!
He gets plenty of bad advice from his fissiparous tribe. He may find misguided solace in his personal rating rising among party members on the blog ConservativeHome – though he’s still only 14th favourite in the cabinet. Paul Goodman, ConservativeHome’s editor, concludes that this rise, which follows the Conservatives’ byelection win in Uxbridge and South Ruislip, is thanks to Sunak’s “tilt from green politics” and his “pro-motorist rhetoric, new North Sea oil and gas licences [and] opposition to low-traffic neighbourhood schemes”.
Tory members want a great green divide. But beware the widening gap between them and the general public. Only 27% of Tory members think there’s a climate emergency, while 67% don’t. Compare that with the government’s own official survey, which found that 82% of voters are concerned about the climate. Though there is more equivocation on “ordinary people” paying for climate mitigation, the public strongly backs taking action: YouGov finds 71% of voters support the 2050 net zero legally binding target, while only 18% of Tory members fully support it.
Rachel Wolf, co-author of the 2019 Tory election manifesto and a founding partner of policy, research, opinion and strategy consultancy Public First, tells PoliticsHome it would be a “massive risk” to pander to net zero sceptics. Bale adds: “It only mobilises the Tory base, the libertarians and the nanny-state resisters.” He warns Sunak to shut his ears to siren voices in the Mail, Sun and Telegraph: “They no longer speak for England.”
The trouble with Sunak’s anti-green “I’m on the side of motorists” pivot is it looks as fake as borrowing a Sainsbury’s staffer’s Kia for a photoshoot on petrol prices. Like his phoney Faragism – pulling pints when everyone knows he doesn’t drink – it only exposes his embarrassingly jittery uncertainty about who he is or what he’s for.
As he pedals on, rightwing Brexiter fury is boiling up, reports the FT, over his retreat on a UK product safety mark. But if he turns to those who see themselves as the presentable face of Toryism, the advice is just as bad. No doubt he read the Times’ leader on Saturday, whose solutions to his electoral woes mainly consisted of gifts to the richest members of society: reward the highest earners with tax relief on their pensions; abolish inheritance tax (though 93% of the population don’t pay it); abolish stamp duty (without replacing it with a better wealth tax); add more tax relief loopholes; impose charges for certain NHS services and cut the state pension (both phenomenally unpopular moves). On it goes with bad advice to reduce spending on welfare (already lower than comparable EU countries), pensions (also low) and healthcare – but look where NHS cuts got us. It also suggests cutting “red tape” on childcare (that is, lowering its quality).
I quote this Times editorial as it echoes advice you hear everywhere among Tory top brass who are out of touch with any but their own kind, as the cost of living crisis passes them by. It’s an electoral suicide plan that could have been written for them by Labour.
At the weekend, Keir Starmer launched a broadside against Tory backtracking on green targets. “Sunak’s actions this past week have exposed a prime minister who is led and does not lead, who has given up on the national interest for his own short-term interest,” he wrote.