As world leaders gathered at the UN climate summit in New York last Tuesday, a topic that was sparking lively discussion on the margins was Rishi Sunak’s “no-show”.
“There were a lot of people asking why he hadn’t come,” said one British source who attended. “Most other world leaders were there.”
The UK was, however, briefly represented at the New York event by Prince William, who was in town to announce the winners of the Earthshot prize, his environmental charity.
While the prince was on stage at lunchtime US time – with the likes of Bill Gates and former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg, discussing the importance of combating global warming – diplomats and officials were distracted by a news alert on their phones. The BBC had been leaked details of how Britain’s prime minister was about to U-turn on several key climate change commitments, and the story was making waves not just in the UK, but across the Atlantic.
The reaction among environmentalists, government officials and others at the UN was, inevitably, scornful. “Which are you?” asked one non-UK diplomat to a British friend, “the prince promoting Earthshot, or your PM thumbing his nose at us?”
Slowly it was becoming clearer why Sunak had decided to stay well away. There were more important things to do at home.
It is less than two years since the UK, under a Conservative government, hosted the Cop26 summit in Glasgow, which committed member states to ratchet up `– not down – their policies to combat global heating.
The then Prince Charles told the Glasgow gathering it was their last chance, saying that “the eyes and hopes of the world are upon you …because time has quite literally run out.” But that was then.
These days in Downing Street, more immediate political concerns predominate.
The Tories remain way behind in the opinion polls, and after 11 months of Sunak’s mission to steady the ship following the turbulence of Boris Johnson’s and Liz Truss’s time at No 10, there is frustration, if not desperation.
Isaac Levido, the Australian strategy guru behind Johnson’s 2019 victory, has been spending the past few weeks working on ways to turn the tide late in the day by finding sharper dividing lines with Labour.
Apart from one ray of sunshine over the summer – in Uxbridge and South Ruislip, where the Conservatives hung on in a byelection largely because of opposition to Labour mayor Sadiq Khan’s expansion of the ultra-low emission zone (Ulez) in London – nothing has gone right.
Initiatives on small boats, the health service and schools all misfired and the autumn got off to the worst possible start, with many schools partially shut and buildings closed off after safety concerns about Raac concrete.
When Conservative MPs returned to Westminster a fortnight ago, they were crying out for new ideas. “We are sinking fast as there is no new direction. We just flog the same issues, like small boats, and it merely shows where we have gone wrong,” said one.
The tax cuts demanded by the right of the party have been all but ruled out by Jeremy Hunt, the chancellor, who insists that cutting inflation is priority number one.
So what, without money to spend, could Sunak and his chancellor do to appeal to undecided voters and cause problems for Labour at the same time?
As well as Levido being on the case, work was being done by the thinktank Onward, jointly set up by Will Tanner, who is now Sunak’s deputy chief of staff, and the Tory minister Neil O’Brien.
Over the last few days, famine has turned to feast and that work has borne fruit. The dividing lines for a general election campaign have become far clearer. But much of the strategy that has emerged at such speed is hugely high-risk, and Tory MPs know it.
The rush of announcements began somewhat chaotically with a rearranged speech by Sunak on Wednesday, reversing a lot of climate change policy that at Cop26 two years ago had been sacrosanct. The speech had to be brought forward from Friday because the BBC leak about the switch had caused a stir – not least in the car industry, which wants certainty over plans for electric vehicles.
Sunak, while insisting the UK would still meet its net zero goals, announced a delay to the ban on sales of new petrol and diesel cars from 2030 to 2035, relaxed targets to get households to switch away from fossil fuel boilers, and ditched plans for tougher energy efficiency rules for landlords. All in all, it was a huge U-turn that caught even seasoned Tory MPs by surprise.
One Conservative source admitted that Sunak was taking the biggest gamble of his premiership.
“Yes, he opens himself to all the stuff about lack of global leadership, but this is about taking on Labour,” the source said. “It is about Starmer – with his £28bn of spending on green investment – hitting you in the pocket. It is a dividing line.”
Plenty of Tories greeted the move as positive. “It is exactly right, the only thing to do,” said Sir Charles Walker, the MP for Broxbourne. Others were dismayed. One MP on the left of the party said he had been encouraged by some of Sunak’s decisions over the summer, such as the move to rejoin the EU’s Horizon scientific research programme: “But then I saw this and thought how wrong I could be.”
Alok Sharma, the former cabinet minister who chaired the Cop26 summit, was sharply critical, saying it would be “incredibly damaging … if the political consensus that we have forged in our country on the environment and climate action is fractured”.
If it was an attempt to win votes, it would fail, he added: “I really do not believe that it’s going to help any political party electorally which chooses to go down this path.”
Other policy ideas that have emerged in the last few days range from ditching A-levels and replacing them with an international baccalaureate – a measure dismissed by many educationalists as unachievable, because there are not enough teachers to make it work – to banning the next generation from ever buying cigarettes.
In the next few days, it is also expected that Sunak will announce a major scaling-down of the HS2 high speed rail project, possibly scrapping the section north of Birmingham altogether.
Labour sources say they believe this is another attempt to create a dividing line with Labour and Keir Starmer: “The Tories will say that HS2 is really a project that benefits the south, not the north, and that, because of that, Labour will be betraying the north by supporting it,” said one.
The risks are obvious, according to Andy Burnham, the Labour mayor of Greater Manchester.
“HS2 to Manchester builds the core of a new east-west line called Northern Powerhouse Rail,” Burnham said. “If the government pulls the plug on HS2, they will be pulling the plug on that new east-west line – and on the north as a whole. We will be left with Victorian rail infrastructure while the southern half of the country will be connected by new high speed lines.
“At the end of the parliament which was meant to level us up, the Conservative party will have succeeded in laying the foundations for the north-south divide to get much wider. As political betrayals go, it doesn’t get much bigger.”
Government insiders said the wobbling over HS2 had caused nervousness in every part of Whitehall, given the amount of money already invested, the weak business case for shortening the line, and the damage done to investor confidence in the UK. This weekend there are strong rumours of ministerial resignations if the project is cut.
Sunak’s personal dislike of HS2 is well known: he is said to be more in favour of cancelling the northern section entirely than Hunt.
“I just think the PM hates the project,” said one Whitehall source. “He hated it when he was chancellor and he didn’t like signing it off. I don’t think it’s much more complicated than that. It also is about having some extra fiscal headroom.
“But what’s strange is that it doesn’t really save you money in this spending review period before the election – it saves you money in the future. I think pretty much everybody else is very nervous.
“The PM also hates smoking. I mean, it’s a strange basis to make policy. Net zero, smoking, A-level reform – what unites these things other than his personal views? That, I think, is a challenge. What’s the common thread between these things and HS2? How does this add up to a coherent programme for government? I’m slightly baffled.”
Opponents both in government and on the Tory back benches are already pointing out the obvious problems. “I’m all for being bold – the difficulty for him, of course, is he doesn’t have a mandate to be bold in these areas,” said one senior Tory. “And it is going against the explicit mandate that the Conservative government does have.”
The Conservative party meets in Manchester for its annual conference next weekend. Senior figures close to the HS2 project say that ditching the northern leg of the high speed line during the gathering in the city would be a political disaster in every sense for a party trying to hang on to seats behind the “red wall”.
“You can see why they want to get an announcement out of the way in the next few days,” said one source. “If they were to announce that HS2 was not coming to Manchester while meeting in, er, Manchester, I don’t think they could ever come back.”
While Sunak’s team insist all their plans are well thought through, and reflect Sunak’s vision and desire for change, there are plenty in his party who smell panic and policymaking on the hoof.
“The policy blitz is just confusing people,” said one senior Tory. “It smacks of total desperation. HS2, smoking, net zero … Most people just seem to see this as flailing around in every direction rather than having any coherent strategy.”
Whether or not it is all coherent, most Tories agree on one thing at least: that the burst of recent activity points towards a general election sooner rather than later. “Multiple cabinet ministers now expect a May election,” said one Tory.
“They’ve decided to gamble the house and are behaving like problem gamblers in a casino. Throwing the kitchen sink at random policy. This can only end badly.”