Sunak faces new by-election nightmare as senior Tory MP Chris Skidmore quits in net zero row

Rishi Sunak has been hit with another by-election as a senior Tory MP quits the party and his seat in protest over the PM’s climate failures.

Chris Skidmore – the former net zero tsar and former energy minister – has said he will resign the Conservative whip and stand down as an MP next week.

In a scathing exit statement he said he could no longer continue as a Tory or “condone” the government because the PM’s environmental stance is “wrong and will cause future harm”.

The MP for Kingswood, in Gloucestershire, said resigning the whip meant his constituents “deserve the right” to elect a new MP in a by-election. “I therefore will be standing down from parliament as soon as possible.”

Despite a Tory majority of 11,000, the struggle to hold off Labour will be a potentially demoralising struggle for Mr Sunak, as he seeks to build some momentum ahead of the 2024 general election.

Mr Skidmore later said that he would quit when the Commons returns from Christmas recess on Monday – setting up a contest in the blue wall seat in February or March.

While the area has been fertile ground for the Lib Dems, 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.

Chris Skidmore led the government’s net zero review in 2022 (PA Archive)
Chris Skidmore led the government’s net zero review in 2022 (PA Archive)

The Conservatives lost a string of by-elections in 2023, with Labour overturning big majorities in Mid-Bedfordshire, Tamworth and Selby and Ainsty.

And 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.

Mr Sunak’s proposed energy bill – to be introduced in the Commons next week – will allow new fossil fuel extraction licences in the North Sea.

The bill would mandate that licences for oil and gas projects in the North Sea are awarded annually, and was seen as a challenge to Labour, which said it would ban new exploration licences to focus on renewables.

In a statement posted on X Mr Skidmore said: “As the former energy minister who signed the UK’s net zero commitment by 2050 into law, I cannot vote for a bill that clearly promotes the production of new oil and gas.

“To fail to act, rather than merely speak out, is to tolerate a status quo that cannot be sustained. I am therefore resigning my party whip and instead intend to be free from any party-political allegiance.”

Labour’s campaign leader Pat McFadden said Mr Skidmore’s exit showed that Mr Sunak was “too weak” to lead his party or the country for much longer. The Lib Dems called his exit an “embarrassing mess” which showed a government in chaos.

Rishi Sunak with King Charles at the Cop28 summit in Dubai (PA)
Rishi Sunak with King Charles at the Cop28 summit in Dubai (PA)

The PM was heavily criticised by campaigners, opponents and green Tories over his July announcement of around 100 new oil and gas licences. Mr Skidmore said the move was the “wrong decision at precisely the wrong time”.

Mr Sunak also faced a backlash from Tory environmentalists after backtracking on more key government climate pledges to reach net zero in September.

In the wake of a surprise by-election victory in Uxbridge over the London mayor’s Ulez charging scheme, the Tory leader also attacked climate “zealots” and said he was on the side of motorists.

The PM then announced that the 2030 ban on the sale of petrol and diesel cars – and gas boilers – would be pushed back to 2035.

Former minister Zac Goldsmith – who quit in June with a swipe at Mr Sunak’s “apathy” toward climate change – said the moves were reprehensible and had “destroyed UK credibility on climate change”.

Boris Johnson also condemned his successor – warning that Mr Sunak was in danger of losing “ambition for this country”, and arguing that businesses were desperate for clear net zero commitments.

Mr Sunak was also accused of “shrinking and retreating” on the climate crisis at the Cop28 summit, as he was condemned for spending more time flying to Dubai than at the conference itself.

The PM insisted that the UK government can still “stand tall” and remain a leader on climate change – despite his own rollback of net zero ambitions at home.