The world was invited into Sunak’s happy place. Aping the cosplay of Tory PMs of recent past, Sunak was photographed in Margaret Thatcher’s old rover for his interview with The Sunday Telegraph where he would unveil his new dividing lines to finally make a dent into Labour’s gargantuan polling lead: cars and fossil fuels – or more precisely, a package of pro-motorist policies, and an expansion of oil and gas drilling in the North Sea.
The problem for Sunak is that in announcing new oil and gas drilling Sunak hasn’t just created a dividing line with Labour, but one with the vast majority of the voting public. The raft of pro-motorist policies Sunak has pledged to review are not national vote movers (ULEZ, LTNs, and preventing councils from imposing 20mph speed limits). However the chief problem with his pro-motorist policies is that being pro-motorist is not a dividing line with the Labour party, it’s something the two parties have in common.
I’ve become slightly more alarmed by the Labour Party’s position. It’s quite anti-motorist. They’ve been critical of me for putting a fuel duty freeze in; not wanting to clamp down on eco zealots for disrupting traffic; the Welsh Labour government blocking 44 out of 59 road building schemes; Ulez.
Under Keir Starmer, the Labour party has in fact become alarmingly pro-motorist. Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves announced this February that Labour would also freeze fuel duty. Labour’s stance towards Just Stop Oil has gone well beyond wanting to clamp down on their traffic disruption protests, last year Labour called for injunctions to be put in place against Just Stop Oil protestors who blockaded an oil depot. It’s telling that of the examples Sunak cites, the two that are correct (ULEZ, Welsh Labour blocking new road building) are from places where Labour, but not Keir Starmer, are in power.
In the wake of Labour’s narrow Uxbridge by-election defeat (which the party decided was more important than its historic Selby victory), the search for a scapegoat began in earnest. Sadiq Khan and ULEZ were quickly decided to be to blame (though the traditional attempt to blame Ed Miliband was made). Keir Starmer subsequently did a media tour to warn Sadiq Khan to ‘reflect’ on ULEZ, just in time for the High Court to declare the scheme legal.
To those not paying attention, it may seem as if both Labour and Tory parties have had their assumptions blown out of the water by the Uxbridge by-election – and both have decided the way to win is to abandon green pledges. This however ignores the depressing wider picture that is driving both parties to move, to varying degrees, away from green politics.
For the Tories, their pro-environment contingent in Parliament has never been particularly big; green politics is often something the Tories have historically brought to the fore when trying to detoxify their brand away from ‘nasty party’ policies. To his credit, Alok Sharma, who served as COP President from 2021 to 2022, has made a Conservative argument against this turn. Sunak, though, has decided that his new dividing line is more important than taking a small step towards the continued existence of human civilization on Earth. In his interview with the Telegraph he stated:
I think it makes absolutely no sense, as the Labour Party is suggesting, to ban North Sea oil and gas. That is just going to weaken our energy security and strengthen the hands of dictators like President Putin. But it’s also going to put at risk 200,000 jobs across something like 30 different sectors of the economy and also threaten £80 billion worth of tax revenue.
Again, Sunak has said something which is partially true, and something which is an outright lie. The Tory government’s newly approved oil and gas fields, far from securing the UK’s energy supply, would provide – at most – three weeks of the UK’s energy per year. On top of this, of the oil currently being extracted from the North Sea, eighty percent is exported. Sunak’s claims of autarky via expanded drilling are a fantasy.
The partial truth in Sunak’s statement is that Labour announced it would end new North Sea oil and gas licences. The emphasis on the “new” section of this policy was made abundantly clear when Starmer clarified that oil and gas would be part of the UK’s energy mix “for decades to come” under a future Labour government. The energy consultancy firm Wood Mackenzie even went as far as to say that the policy should be viewed as “largely symbolic” and a “softening of Labour’s previous position”. Starmer himself said when launching the policy that “Ninety percent of North Sea oil has already been extracted or licensed to be extracted”. Starmer has now confirmed Labour would honour any new oil and gas licences issued by the Tory government before the next general election.
Though Labour originally launched the policy with the aim to make the UK a “Clean energy superpower by 2030”. Labour’s oil and gas policy would see drilling in the North Sea continue well beyond that. This follows Labour announcing the watering down of their pledge to spend £28bn per year on green jobs and industry. The fact that one of the trade unions most supportive of Starmer’s leadership is the pro-fracking GMB union shows that even if Starmer were inclined towards a quicker green energy transition, he’d have stiff opposition internally.
Despite Sunak’s protestations, both parties are pro-motorist, and are increasingly moving away from pro-environment policies. Sunak saying that Labour don’t understand that “the vast majority of people in the country use their cars to get around and are dependent on their cars” is exactly the kind of thing to expect from a party twenty points behind, unwilling to use any fiscal levers to address the cost of living crisis.
But beyond electoralism, motorists represent the largest, most powerful, and least accountable section of British society. It is impossible to read the news in the UK without coming across a story about a motorist killing a cyclist and receiving merely a community order, or suspended sentence as a result. Analysis in 2014 found that motorists who killed cyclists had only a one in ten chance of being jailed. These stories completely fail to become part of the national conversation when it comes to politicians being questioned about motorists.
Oil and gas can be seen in a similar light. Much of the right wing media has declared that the Uxbridge by-election marked the end of green politics in the UK, with the same zeal Robert Peston assumed northern “red wall” voters must actually have disliked Jeremy Corbyn’s “metropolitan middle class” protest against Donald Trump’s state visit in 2019. Starmer and Sunak seem in a race to the bottom of who can alienate their parties the most from a British public that wholeheartedly supports measures to tackle the climate crisis.
The dividing line between the two parties is now a slow green transition with Labour, or no green transition at all with the Conservatives. This is of course very uninspiring – but it would be more helpful if this distinction was actually spelled out by the media more often. As has become the new normal in British politics, so long as the appearance and spectacle of things being done is maintained, the media and political class need not grapple with the falling apart of the state or the actual real-world positions of the two political parties seeking to govern the UK.
For the Tories, an imaginary Labour party, one that is anti-motorist (if only), in favour of the comprehensive and immediate end to North Sea oil and gas drilling, and wholeheartedly supportive of Welsh Labour’s and Sadiq Khan’s environmental policies, is a more attractive prospect than engaging in any soul searching about why they find themselves twenty points behind so close to a general election. For Sunak, real world dividing lines with Labour will be hard to come by when inflation remains so high, the NHS remains in such a poor state, and the rest of Britain’s public realm continues to crumble all around us. But then Sunak does not want to live in the real world and address real world problems; he wants to drive Margaret Thatcher’s rover.