Cynical Rishi sells net zero targets down the river to appease the right

<span>Photograph: WPA/Getty</span>
Photograph: WPA/Getty

You could sense the panic when news was leaked of Rishi Sunak’s plans to water down some of his climate change targets. Instead of a controlled speech later in the week – probably somewhere with green connections: Rish! never knowingly undersells the irony – we got a hastily arranged press conference. In the very same Downing Street media centre where No 10 staff had joked about having illegal parties during the pandemic. Call it karma. Stay calm and carry on taking the piss out of the country.

And breathe. Sunak strode into the room and stood in front of a lectern with a sign reading “long-term decisions for a brighter future” on the front. Gaslighting the country again. It’s getting to be a habit. He then opened his mouth. RishGPT can’t really help the entitled, nasal whine. But this time it came soaked in contempt. This wasn’t just patronising, it was the most cynical speech from a prime minister in years. Deep down Sunak must know that he has sold his soul for the chance of remaining in office a while longer. There was a comedy to Liz Truss. At least she believed the mad things she was saying. Plus when all’s said and done she only destroyed the economy. But Rish! doesn’t believe any of this. He can’t be that stupid and deluded. And he’s hellbent on taking down the whole planet. The dishonesty was breathtaking. He lied and he lied and he lied.

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“People are frustrated with politics,” Sunak began. They were fed up with the short-termism. So he was here to deliver change. Only he wasn’t. The whole point of his speech was a short-term gain. To try to revive his standing in the polls with voters he imagines don’t much care about the climate crisis. To at least give him a shout in the election he’s sure to lose. Here he was pushing back net zero targets for 2030, safe in the knowledge he and his family will be back in California long before that. There’s no way RishGPT is going to hang around to see the consequences of his action.

We moved on to the government’s five priorities. Or rather skated over them as none of them are looking that rosy. So instead Sunak turned to climate change. He believed in it passionately, he said. But you can have too much of a good thing. People had turned net zero into some kind of a religion. But hey! What was wrong with floods and forest fires? Who cared if other parts of the world suffered as long as the UK was all right?

So RishGPT – soft voice becoming ever more condescending, almost as if he was trying to dissociate himself from himself – had news for the country. It was time for us to do climate change lite. Just the bits we wanted. There was no need to go the whole hog. It was like this. The UK had always led the world in meeting its climate change obligations. So we could afford to ease up a bit. More than that, it was our duty. It wasn’t British to show up other countries. We were more modest than that. What we needed to do was give everyone else a chance to catch up. That way everyone would be happy.

Related: The Guardian view on diluting net zero targets: bad economics dictated by cynical politics | Editorial

“We’re not giving up on net zero by 2050,” Sunak insisted. One day he might look back on footage of this 40 minutes and feel some sense of shame. No. The very idea that he might be rowing back on any climate change commitments was a total misunderstanding of what he was about. He was just abandoning some targets along the way because he was terrified of next year’s election. That wasn’t at all the same as abandoning legally binding targets, even though everyone remotely sane agreed it was. He had no idea how we would make up the difference but he was sure someone would think of something in 10 years or so. In any case, it made no difference to him anyway. He was just saying what he needed to say.

So here was the deal. Don’t worry about your gas boilers for the foreseeable. Don’t worry about your petrol and diesel cars till 2035. If then. Perhaps another government would move back the deadline to 2040 soon. Don’t bother to insulate your homes. And, yes, he was so, so on the side of working people who couldn’t afford green policies. That’s why he was happy for them to remain in fuel poverty. That would teach renters to learn to afford their own properties.

The hypocrisy kept on piling up. Somehow climate change would slow down just because it was convenient for him to think it would. The trick was to keep everything just the same for longer. This was a pragmatic government in action.

Except it wasn’t. It was a naked ideological pitch to the Tory right. There in plain sight and all Rish! could do was instruct the country not to believe the evidence of its own eyes. He even talked up the offshore contracts auction that resulted in no bids. Green industry has already rejected the Tories. Astonishingly he also spoke of government by consent. This after making sure parliament was on recess because of the party conference season and could not have its say.

There was a smattering of applause from a few captive ministers who had been kidnapped for the occasion before Sunak took a few questions from mostly neutral or friendly audience. Mostly he held it together even as he repeated his lies but the mask slipped when the Guardian’s Pippa Crerar challenged him on watering down net zero targets and letting down his daughters. Sunak had always said he wouldn’t be able to look his daughters in the eye if he relaxed his climate change commitments.

He wasn’t watering anything down, he said snottily. His anger at being outed was exposed. He was keeping to the same targets by pushing the targets back. It was delusional stuff. Insane. Even the car industry thinks he’s mad. And he didn’t care about his daughters because they wouldn’t be paying £10K for a heat pump. Mmm. That’s rather the point. But he had spoken to them and asked them which they preferred. The planet dying or Daddy being disappointed at the next election. These were hard choices.

With that, Sunak headed to the exit. It was going to be a long election campaign. Starting now. The zealots and ideologues of the Tory right weren’t going down without a last hurrah.