Senior Labour MPs were scathing about Rishi Sunak’s decision to roll back some of the government’s most important climate targets. Ed Miliband, the shadow energy secretary, said the prime minister was “rattled, chaotic and out of his depth”. Another shadow frontbencher said they thought Sunak had “lost the plot”.
But while shadow ministers attacked the speech on Wednesday, they also admitted they would not completely undo what the prime minister announced.
Steve Reed, the shadow environment secretary, told Times Radio the party’s policy in advance of the next election would be to restore the 2030 deadline for eliminating the sale of new petrol and diesel cars. But it does not plan to bring back the 2026 deadline for beginning the phase-out of all gas boilers.
“Labour isn’t going to put people’s bills up,” Reed said.
Those around Keir Starmer know that there is widespread public support, not only for the 2050 net zero target, but for the policies designed to help meet it, including the car and boiler targets.
But they also know that these policies are less popular among people who voted Conservative in 2019 – people Labour needs to win en masse if it is to win the next election. And Labour aides know that if they promise to reinstate the targets, the Conservatives are likely to go into the next election warning that a Labour government would be more costly for consumers.
For now, Labour is relishing the prospect of a widespread attack on the Tories from the British business community, especially from car companies, which have invested hundreds of millions of pounds preparing for the 2030 deadline.
“Sunak wants to distance himself from Boris Johnson, but nothing encapsulates Johnson’s ‘fuck business’ attitude like today’s announcement,” said one.
But the party also knows that if the targets are pushed back, businesses are likely to respond accordingly.
“The problem is not even whether we want to put the targets back to where they were for political reasons,” said one party aide. “The question is whether businesses will now pull back so much investment that doing so will be impossible.”
Speaking later on Wednesday at a Politico event, Miliband confirmed Labour would stick with the 2030 phase-out for petrol and diesel cars but he said the party would look at the other ones and made clear they would not “sign up to failed government targets”. He suggested the boiler targets could be revisited by Labour but he would want to stick to the previous plan on energy efficiency.
He focused his overriding criticisms of Sunak on the government’s indecision and the costs of failing to transition to clean energy.
“I’m disappointed for the country because the country needs ambition and a sense of a plan. I don’t know how you plan on the basis of what this government is offering from one day to the next,” he said.
“The second problem is a big philosophical difference between us and the Conservatives. I think the PM sees net zero simply as an obligation to be managed and not an opportunity to be seized. That is the way he behaved as chancellor and that’s how he’s behaving today. We will lose in the global race for jobs and load more costs on to consumers.
“The 2030 phase-out date would save billions – [Sunak’s reversal] isn’t cost-reducing but cost-raising. He has given in to a sceptical sect in his party who thinks delay and dither is the answer.”
On Sunak’s claims about some people wanting to bring in a meat tax, Miliband said it was ridiculous and neither he nor even the Vegan Society was in favour of such a policy.