Skip to main content

“Talking about freedom, sat in Margaret Thatcher’s old Rover…” Is Rishi Sunak speaking to middle England?

Rishi Sunak
By Gareth Jones
01 August 2023
Green & Good (ESG and Impact)
Public Affairs
net zero

Rishi Sunak is spending the first part of the summer break continuing to capitalise and build momentum around what was his first political success in months - victory in the Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election - with a series of announcements, visits and interviews where he sought to emphasise his ‘pro-motorist’ message and provide push-back on a range of green issues where he sees that he can exploit a dividing line between his government and the Labour Party.

In the past few days, the Prime Minister has announced a ‘review’ of anti-car schemes such as low traffic neighbourhoods (LTNs) and travelled to Scotland to announce a new round of licenses for North Sea oil and gas exploration, stressing that he wants to reach the 2050 net zero target in a "pragmatic and proportionate way" that also protects jobs and enhances energy security. While seemingly separate issues, the PM has sought to build these announcements around a theme – that his government is on the side of ordinary families when it comes to environmental and green issues, will not load unnecessary costs onto ordinary voters and, unlike Labour, will not turn net zero into a “religious crusade” (in the words of Michael Gove).

Undoubtedly the lesson that Sunak has taken from Uxbridge and South Ruislip is that the backlash against ULEZ was very real and reflected a sentiment that exists more broadly across the country. There has also been a broader calculation by party strategists that while public support for net zero and carbon-cutting policies remains high in the UK, they are highly susceptible to significant drops in support once the costs to ordinary families become clear. By adopting a “pragmatic and proportionate" approach to environment issues, the Conservatives hope that they can effectively tap into this underlying sentiment and position themselves favourably against a more ‘ideological’ Labour Party among swing voters.

In terms of substance, these announcements in the past few days may not represent anything new or radical (the new licencing arrangements for the North Sea was pre-existing government policy and many are sceptical if the review of LTNs will amount to anything) – and crucially, Sunak has not, as yet, sought to change the 2030 timetable for ending the sale of new petrol and diesel cars. However, the change in tone of voice from the Prime Minister is notable, with what has been seen as a more personal and aggressive campaigning stance, as well as personal attacks against Keir Starmer.

This represents something of a contrast with the Prime Minister’s public persona to-date, which had relied on the use of moderate language and projected quiet competence to distinguish himself from his predecessors. Of course, many will point out that Sunak has had no choice but to change stance given his poll ratings, the state of the economy and the lack of progress on his Five Pledges.

Leaving aside the rights and wrongs of a toned-down net zero agenda, the question remains over whether this stance will prove effective in chipping away at Labour’s poll lead. It is certainly true after all that public consensus on net zero and environmental issues is more fragile than previously thought. Even Tony Blair has voiced his scepticism over the cost of net zero measures and the Labour frontbench has been conflicted in its response to issues such as ULEZ. The Conservatives believe that if they can land this message right, they will win a crucial battle on the number one issue with voters – the cost of living.

But whether Sunak can exploit any political advantage out of this situation remains to be seen. As his own poll ratings continue to drop, his attempts to try and position himself as a pro-motorist populist may come across as inauthentic and cynical. In an awkward social media post over the weekend, Sunak posted a pic of himself smiling, saying he was “Talking about freedom, sat in Margaret Thatcher’s old Rover”. This felt odd on a number of levels, and perhaps showed he is less well-equipped to carry out a man-of-the-people message than some of his predecessors, notably Boris Johnson. That said, Sunak’s net zero and environmental scepticism is probably genuine, and he will hope that, in his own way, he is seen to be speaking for ‘middle England’ and swing voters on this issue.