By-election triggered by Chris Skidmore as Tory climate rebel quits parliament

Senior Tory MP Chris Skidmore has submitted his resignation in protest over Rishi Sunak’s oil and gas drilling plans – triggering yet another by-election headache for the PM.

The ex-energy minister said Mr Sunak’s climate change stance would “destroy the reputation of the UK as a climate leader”, having announced on Friday that he planned to stand down.

The MP for Kingswood in Gloucestershire formally quit the Tory whip and his seat on Monday, arguing that his constituents “deserve the right” to elect someone new if he could no longer back the government.

It comes as fellow former Tory cabinet minister Sir Alok Sharma said Mr Sunak’s plans to maximise North Sea oil and gas production give the impression he is “not being serious” about tackling climate change.

The president of the Cop26 climate summit hosted by the UK said he could not support the PM’s Offshore Petroleum Licensing Bill – which sanctions fresh drilling in the North Sea – when MPs vote on it later on Monday.

Sir Alok said the legislation is a “smoke and mirrors” exercise which reinforces the perception that the UK is “rowing back from climate action”.

A group of 30 politicians, including Mr Skidmore and Lord Zac Goldsmith, have also written to energy secretary Claire Coutinho urging the government to drop the bill – saying that it is “diametrically opposed” to the global drive away from fossil fuels.

Chris Skidmore quit the Tory whip and formally resigned his seat (PA)
Chris Skidmore quit the Tory whip and formally resigned his seat (PA)

Mr Skidmore – who said the PM’s move was the “wrong decision at the wrong time” – said he could not vote for a bill that promotes new oil and gas production or condone a government which pushed it.

In his formal resignation letter to the chancellor Jeremy Hunt, Mr Skidmore said the PM and his ministers should be looking to the long-term – not “playing short-term politics” with legislation that does “so much to destroy the reputation of the UK as a climate leader”.

He added: “No-one has ever denied that we will not need the oil and gas we are using today, but to seek to open up future new sources of fossil fuels, that will be sold on international markets and owned by foreign companies, will do nothing for our energy security.”

His exit sets up a contest in the blue wall seat in February or March. Labour came second in the seat in 2019 – so it would seem to provide Sir Keir Starmer’s party with an ideal opportunity to deliver a fresh blow to Mr Sunak.

The battle for Mr Skidmore’s seat is one of three by-elections the Tory party could lose in the early months of 2024. Peter Bone’s Wellingborough seat will soon see a contest after the Tory MP was removed in a recall petition following his suspension for upheld sexual misconduct claims.

And Scott Benton’s Blackpool South seat could also be up for grabs after his 35-day suspension over a sting which exposed him offering to lobby for gambling investors.

Senior Tory Sir Alok Sharma has said he cannot back the oil and gas drilling bill (PA Wire)
Senior Tory Sir Alok Sharma has said he cannot back the oil and gas drilling bill (PA Wire)

Mr Sunak’s bill will require the industry regulator to run annual rounds for new oil and gas licences. Currently licensing rounds are run when the North Sea Transition Authority (NTSA) decides it is necessary.

The government claims the introduction of regular licensing for exploration will increase certainty, investor confidence and make the UK more energy-independent amid ongoing turmoil from Russia’s war with Ukraine.

The former climate minister and Cop president spoke out on Monday ahead of the Offshore Petroleum Licensing Bill having its first Commons test on Monday night.

“It’s actually the opposite of what we agreed to do internationally, so I won’t be supporting it,” Sir Alok told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, calling it a “total distraction which frankly changes nothing”.

And Mr Sharma, standing down at the election, accused the Tory leader of “chopping and changing” climate policies, reinforcing “the unfortunate perception about the UK rolling back from climate action”.

Mr Sunak defended his decisions and insisted the UK was still a world leader in its net zero commitments when asked about the criticism ahead of the vote.

Challenged about “flip flopping” on the issue at a PM Connect event in Lancashire he said: “We’ve got more ambitious targets than any other advanced economy in the world. Fact.

“And we can still meet those targets without having to impose these costs on you prematurely, telling you to switch your car, rip out your boiler, upgrade the efficiency in your home.”

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said the offshore oil and gas Bill was a “waste of time” designed to create a dividing line.

“It isn’t going to make any difference at all – zero impact – on energy bills,” Sir Keir told reporters as he pointed to comments from former ministers.

Sir Keir said: “What you’ve got is a government that’s wasting its time trying to pass legislation to create a dividing line with the Labour party rather than to solve the problem.”

No 10 declined to say whether the aim of the bill is to increase the number of licences granted. An energy department spokesperson said Britain still needed oil and gas “for decades to come”.

They added: “These new licenses will not increase carbon emissions above our legally binding carbon budgets, but will provide certainty for industry, support 200,000 jobs and bring in tens of billions of tax that we can invest in the green transition and support people with cost of living.”