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Rishi Sunak was on Tuesday accused of presiding over a “slow motion car crash” as the prime minister prepared to delay crucial measures intended to turn the UK into a net zero carbon economy.
Downing Street said the government would always be “pragmatic and ensure costs are not passed on to hard-working families” amid media reports stating the prime minister was about to retreat from key green commitments.
Downing Street did not deny a BBC report that potential changes being considered by Sunak included pushing back a planned ban on sales of new petrol and diesel cars from 2030 until 2035.
Ministers are also expected to weaken a plan to ban the installation of new household gas boilers from 2035, according to people briefed on Sunak’s thinking.
The BBC said the government wants to delay a 2026 ban on new off-grid oil boilers to 2035.
The prime minister is also expected to say his government will not bring in new taxes to discourage flying or policies to force people to use car pooling.
Chris Skidmore, a Conservative MP who produced a report on net zero for Sunak this year, said: “We will look back on this moment as Sunak’s slow motion car crash.”
Sunak is preparing to announce the changes in a big speech ahead of the Tory party conference next month, in an attempt to reset his government and appeal to swing voters in the run-up to the general election.
The prime minister has calculated that while voters want the UK to hit its target of reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2050, they believe the goal should be met in a way that does not unfairly penalise households struggling with the cost of living crisis.
Downing Street did not deny the media reports while insisting that it remained “completely committed” to the UK’s legally binding target of achieving a net zero carbon economy by 2050.
“Our approach will always be pragmatic and ensure costs are not passed on to hard-working families,” said a spokesman. “We will not comment on speculation.”
Sunak thinks he can trap Labour on the wrong side of an argument on green policies, suggesting that party leader Sir Keir Starmer is being overzealous at the expense of households.
The danger for Sunak is that he will alienate many potential Conservative voters over what could appear as a retreat from a green agenda promoted by his predecessors Boris Johnson and Theresa May.
A Labour spokesperson said: “This is a total farce. The country cannot go on with a Conservative government in total disarray, stumbling from crisis to crisis.”
Skidmore said the ideas being discussed by Sunak threatened to set back the green agenda in the UK for a decade or longer.
“This is like when David Cameron promised to tackle ‘green crap’ and ended up sticking billions on people’s bills by blocking onshore wind,” he added.
Sam Hall, head of the Conservative Environment Network, which counts about 150 Tory MPs and peers as supporters, said: “Slowing down action on climate change would be a serious political, economic and environmental mistake.”
Politicians were unnerved in July when local concerns about the expansion of London’s ultra low-emissions zone were widely seen as preventing Labour from seizing the constituency of Uxbridge in a parliamentary by-election.
Starmer subsequently distanced himself from London Labour mayor Sadiq Khan’s plan, and it has prompted a rethink of various green policies by Sunak.
Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg, a leading net zero sceptic in the Conservative parliamentary party, welcomed Sunak’s expected move, saying: “Taking burdens off the backs of taxpayers during an inflationary period is the right thing to do and could prove an election winning strategy.”
The car industry has been seeking clarity for months over whether the government would stick by its plan to ban sales of new petrol and diesel cars from 2030.
One figure close to the government questioned whether a delay to the 2030 ban was likely to happen, noting how BMW this month committed to invest £600mn to produce electric Minis at a plant in Oxford. Tata Group in July agreed to build a £4bn gigafactory for electric vehicles in Somerset.
Business secretary Kemi Badenoch last week said ministers wanted to remain “flexible”.
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