Sunak has thrown down gauntlet to Labour – stage now set for a spring election

Sunak compares UK’s climate change record to other countries

Even out in Asia, Rishi Sunak’s announcement yesterday on ditching net zero commitments is reverberating.

Just after breakfast at a conference I’m attending in South Korea, I ran into a highly experienced political strategist who has worked for a number of very senior Conservatives over the years.

His two-word assessment of Sunak was both blunt and brutal – “Rishi’s capitulated”.

The conclusion was not a judgement on whether Sunak was right or wrong to ditch those net zero policies – most of which were pretty unpopular with a majority of the general public.

It was a statement of fact that the Prime Minister is now desperate to prevent his party from breaking up and heading for a catastrophic defeat.

READ MORE: Sunak throws five outrageous net zero pledges on the scrapheap in huge U-turn

Why the Tory civil war shaped the announcement

Ever since the moves to remove Boris Johnson properly got underway there has been a civil war raging in the Conservative Parliamentary Party.

The removal of Liz Truss in a second coup and installation of Sunak rather than saving the party and settling the issue simply acted to widen the gulf between the factions further and enrage the party’s membership and voter base.

Sunak has simply not been able to justify being installed as Prime Minister and failed to turn things around in the polls and arguably it has just got worse with a weekly reminder of the 20-point gap behind Labour.

Sunak was the wet (left) of the Tory MPs’ man but he remains in serious danger of losing the right of the party including Boris Johnson’s and Liz Truss’s supporters over his high tax, high regulation, diluting Brexit policies as well as the psychodrama of the last few months.

Be in no doubt that extreme lengths were being discussed behind the scenes to destroy his premiership or remove him and it is likely the Prime Minister had intelligence of them.

While we know the obligatory letters have gone in from a few Tory MPs to Sir Graham Brady asking for a leadership vote, knows of early chatter about creating a new Conservative breakaway party.

That option was unlikely and risky but certainly, there is a desire among supporters of both Johnson and Truss for the party to lose the next election badly so it can be rebuilt as “a real Conservative Party with real conservative values”.

Added to that various groups are, without direct involvement from their candidates, already preparing for leadership bids for Kemi Badenoch, Penny Mordaunt, Suella Braverman, Sir Jake Berry and one of Liz Truss’s group of allies among others.

All this shows that the game is close to being up for the Prime Minister one way or another and he had to find a way to appease the right or at least nullify its threat.

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Why net zero was the obvious policy sacrifice

The angry reaction of Boris Johnson to Sunak tearing up his “legacy” on net zero policies actually masks the fact that most of his own supporters were the ones begging the Prime Minister to do just that.

The die was cast when the Conservatives pulled off their highly unlikely by-election win in Uxbridge and South Ruislip to replace Mr Johnson as the seat’s MP.

That seat was lost by Labour because of London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s unnecessary expansion of the ultra low emission zone imposing a £12.50 tax a day on thousands of families and businesses for driving their vehicles.

What it proved was that the “green crap” (as David Cameron once called it) is extremely unpopular among voters and the obsession with net zero policies on cars, meat, heating homes and more will cost people huge amounts of money in a cost of living crisis is not the way to win elections.

The right of the party has been saying this for years and it was inevitable that Sunak would agree once the Uxbridge votes had been counted.

By accepting the obvious electoral analysis, Sunak was also making a political calculation – just as he has done in being so determined to stop the small boats.

If you adopt policies the right asks you to adopt it makes calls for a new leader much more difficult and certainly closes off an even remote possibility of a breakaway party based on more traditional conservative positions.

It will be worth watching out for tax cuts and possibly agreeing to review Britain’s position in the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) in the coming months.

Why a May election is now highly likely

Pencil in May 2, 2024, for the next general election.

Certainly, the Conservative Whatsapp groups were full of it last night and sources have told that a May Day election is now “what is planned”.

There are a number of reasons it makes sense.

First, by declaring war on net zero and green policies just ahead of the party conferences, Sunak has laid the groundwork for the political battle for the election.

Labour now has to respond and it puts Starmer in the awkward situation of looking anti-green or confirming the view that he will attack ordinary voters with draconian net zero policies at the behest of Just Stop Oil’s major donor Dale Vince who is also giving Labour substantial sums of cash.

Sunak can maximise this fight with a spring election after another hard winter where net zero and keeping the lights on will come into focus.

The debate loses its bite in an autumn election after the summer holidays.

Second, is the issue of the small boats.

We now know the obvious which is bad weather in the winter sees a drop in illegal migrants crossing the Channel.

There has always been a doubt that Sunak would want to go to the voters after a summer when thousands more had made the crossing in more clement conditions.

Third is that by getting Tory MPs to focus on a May election it effectively kills off the civil war.

There is nothing like trying to keep a seat to encourage MPs to put other issues aside.

The argument to have an autumn election has always been based on the dire poll showing for the Conservatives.

But if they are to win at all it will be as likely in May as it would be in October.

Sunak’s Government is running out of steam and there needs to be a reset. His net zero change of course yesterday is the beginning of that.

The only question now is whether it is enough to save his premiership and his party.

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