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Rishi Sunak on Wednesday ignited a business backlash and a Conservative civil war on the environment, as he announced a series of U-turns on key targets to tackle climate change.
Sunak claimed his “pragmatic, proportionate and realistic” approach to reaching Britain’s 2050 target for net zero carbon would protect vulnerable households, but it provoked anger from Tory MPs and business leaders.
Sunak announced he was pushing back a ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars from 2030 to 2035 in a delay is strongly opposed by some carmakers. He said the move brought Britain into line with EU countries.
He has also relaxed the 2035 phase-out target for the installation of new gas boilers by introducing a new exemption for the most hard-pressed households so they will “never have to switch at all”.
Boris Johnson, former prime minister, led the attacks on the policy shift, saying that business needed “certainty”, adding: “We cannot afford to falter now or in any way lose our ambition for the country.”
Other retreats Sunak announced included abandoning tougher energy efficiency rules for landlords and delaying a ban on oil boilers off the gas grid.
Meanwhile the cabinet approved plans to increase by 50 per cent to £7,500 grants for boiler upgrades and to “fast track” through the planning system projects to improve connections to the grid.
In a veiled swipe at former premier Johnson, who had announced many of the ambitious net zero targets, Sunak claimed politicians “in governments of all stripes have not been honest about costs and trade-offs”.
The prime minister was forced to rush forward his Downing St speech after his plan to dilute Britain’s green policies was leaked. The cabinet was briefed in an emergency meeting on Wednesday morning.
The prime minister said he was aligning himself with ordinary households who want Britain to meet its 2050 net zero commitments, but on a reasonable timetable.
He said the current programme would impose “unacceptable costs on hard-pressed British families”, claiming that in the end it would lead to the collapse of the national consensus on tackling climate change.
Sunak’s political aim is to present Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer as an “eco-zealot” prepared to inflict his agenda on struggling households, but the immediate effect was to split his own party.
Many Conservative MPs welcomed the new proposals. Suella Braverman, home secretary, said: “We’re not going to save the planet by bankrupting the British people.”
But Tory MPs in southern seats were worried. One said: “They think this will prop up our vote in ‘red wall’ seats, but it will lose the last vestiges of support we had among the young and liberal middle classes.”
Former COP26 president Sir Alok Sharma said resiling from the climate action agenda would leave the planet “on life support”. Lord Zac Goldsmith, former Tory environment minister, said it was “a moment of shame”.
Car manufacturers have invested in electric vehicle manufacturing on the basis of Britain’s current pledge to ban the sale of new petrol and diesel cars from 2030 — a policy that is now in doubt.
Lisa Brankin, chair of Ford UK, said the existing 2030 target for cars was a “vital catalyst to accelerate Ford into a cleaner future” as she highlighted the company’s £430mn investment in its UK electrification development and manufacturing facilities.
“Our business needs three things from the UK government: ambition, commitment and consistency. A relaxation of 2030 would undermine all three,” Brankin said.
House of Commons Speaker Lindsay Hoyle was furious that Sunak announced the new policy the day after MPs rose for a recess. “If he had the power, the Speaker would recall the House immediately,” his spokesman said.