Tories at war over Rishi Sunak’s betrayal of net zero pledge

Rishi Sunak has sparked a furious civil war in the Tory party after backtracking on a key government climate pledge to reach net zero.

After 24 hours of frenetic political briefing, the prime minister held a hastily convened press conference at Downing Street to announce that the 2030 ban on the sale of petrol and diesel cars – and gas boilers – would be pushed back to 2035.

Outlining a series of policies aimed at watering down the government’s environmental commitments, he attacked climate “zealots” and said it was wrong to “impose such significant costs on working people”.

But his shift in policy prompted accusations of betrayal and an outpouring of anger among environmentalists, businesses, international allies and some Tory MPs.

He was backed by his predecessor Liz Truss, ministers Kemi Badenoch and Suella Braverman, and former minister Jacob Rees-Mogg.

The car giant Ford led industry backlash, warning the U-turn would “undermine” investment, while former minister Zac Goldsmith said the move was “reprihensible” and had “destroyed UK credibility on climate change”.

The ex-environment minister, who quit inJune with a swipe at Mr Sunak's “apathy” toward climate change, accused the PM of turning net zero into a “US-style political wedge issue”. “Mr Sunak is chucking the environment into a political fire purely to score points,” he said.

On a day of high political drama:

  • Sunak held panicked calls with members of the cabinet to tell them of the policy change before his press conference

  • The PM promised to scrap taxes designed to dissuade people from flying and weakened measures to phase out gas boilers

  • Boris Johnson condemned the U-turn, saying “we cannot afford to falter”

  • Former US vice-president Al Gore added his voice to the criticism, saying Mr Sunak “is doing the wrong thing”, adding: “I certainly disagree with him.”

  • The independent Climate Change Committee raised the possibility of a legal challenge

  • Chris Norbury, the chief executive of energy giant E.On, was among 250 business leaders condemning the move

Senior Tory Alok Sharma, Cop26 president, said the U-turn “will not help economically or electorally”, while former minister Sir Simon Clarke said the PM had acted against the country’s “environmental, economic, moral and political interests”.

Tory MP Chris Skidmore, who led the government’s recent net zero review, accused Mr Sunak of jeopardising the UK’s international standing: “It will potentially destabilise thousands of jobs and see investment go elsewhere.”

Mr Johnson warned Mr Sunak he was in danger of losing “ambition for this country”, and said that businesses were desperate for “certainty about our net zero commitments”. Lord Goldsmith went further to call for a general election “now”.

Former international development minister Rory Stewart said he was “really sad” to see Mr Sunak row back on green policies. He said: “It was a good policy ethically, environmentally and economically - let’s hope Labour at least holds to it and doesn’t get dragged into imitating this reversal.”

The decision to row back on commitments to improve the energy efficiency of homes was branded “hugely disappointing” by the National Housing Federation, which said it could lead to people facing higher bills “for years to come”.

Among the signatories to an angry letter signed by 250 businesses and campaign groups, organised by think tank E3G, were Chris Norbury, the chief executive of energy giant E.On, Peter Jelkeby, the boss of Ikea UK and Ireland, and National Trust director general Hilary McGrady.

Rishi Sunak at the press conference on net zero targets (Reuters)
Rishi Sunak at the press conference on net zero targets (Reuters)

Even before the PM’s statement, Downing Street saw polling and focus group data showing his new net-zero plan is unlikely to win back many wavering Conservative voters, the Times reported.

The polling and interviews showed that most Tory voters thought spending more on renewable energy would bring down the cost of living and do not blame green commitments for the cost of living squeeze.

While some moderate Tories were furious, several cabinet ministers, including business secretary Kemi Badenoch and chief whip Simon Hart, turned up to support Mr Sunak.

Ms Truss welcomed Mr Sunak’s weakening of net zero policies – and urged him to go further to scrap the windfall tax on oil and gas and lift the fracking ban. She claimed it would make the UK “more competitive”.

In other startling remarks, former minister Jacob Rees-Mogg said he “could not be more supportive” of what Mr Sunak was doing.

Earlier home secretary Ms Braverman defended watering down net zero commitments by saying the government will not “save the planet by bankrupting the British people”.

And the New Conservatives group – which includes right-wingers elected since the Brexit referendum – said the watering down of plans was a “common-sense approach” that would appeal to 2019 Tory voters.

Rishi Sunak was accused of putting UK standing and investment at risk (PA)
Rishi Sunak was accused of putting UK standing and investment at risk (PA)

The PM also pushed back the ban on boilers relying on heating oil in off-grid homes from 2026 to 2035, and weakened the phasing out of gas boilers from 2035 so households struggling to switch to heat pumps will not have to make the switch.

Mr Sunak also said he would not guide against eating meat and added that he had blocked a “government diktat to sort your rubbish into seven different bins”.

The PM insisted he was still committed to net zero carbon emissions by 2050, but claimed previous governments, both Tory and Labour, had been dishonest: “No one in Westminster politics has yet had the courage to look people in the eye and explain what’s really involved. That’s wrong, and it changes now.”

Labour accused Mr Sunak of “weak leadership”. Steve Reed, the shadow environment secretary, said Labour would restore the 2030 ban on petrol and diesel car sales. “That’s what businesses have been investing for,” he told Sky News. But he wouldn’t commit to reversing changes to the phasing out of gas boilers.

More than 250 NGOs and businesses urged Mr Sunak not to weaken the UK’s net zero policies – warning against “the greatest act of economic self-harm since Liz Truss’s mini-Budget” and “the historic mistake of Rishi Sunak’s premiership”.

Former Tory environment minister Lord Deben, who leads the independent Climate Change Committee, attacked the PM’s “stupid” watering down of climate pledges – warning the move will be “extremely damaging” and may face a legal challenge.

Boris Johnson attacked the U-turn but it was welcomed by Liz Truss (PA)
Boris Johnson attacked the U-turn but it was welcomed by Liz Truss (PA)

Ford’s UK chair Lisa Brankin said the delayed ban undermined “ambition, commitment and consistency” in the transition to electric vehicles. The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders asked: “What is the strategy here?”

David Savage, the vice-president of car supplier Geotab, said that many of those in the industry who are investing heavily in the transition away from fossil fuels “will be feeling let down and betrayed by the government”.

Nigel Topping, the UN’s climate change champion at Cop26, added that the weakening of the commitments would “send all the wrong signals to industry and push investment and jobs overseas”.

London mayor Sadiq Khan – who is currently at odds with the government over the ultra-low-emission zone (Ulez) – told the UN climate summit that millions of people would feel “let down” that Mr Sunak was “now backtracking on the UK’s climate commitments”.

Meanwhile, Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey said Mr Sunak was “putting the UK at the back of the queue”, while Plaid Cymru leader Liz Saville-Roberts said it was a “shameful betrayal of future generations”.

Meanwhile, Commons speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle reacted furiously to Mr Sunak announcing the major change at a press conference rather than addressing MPs in the Commons – writing to the PM to tell him it was “not the way to do business”.