Rishi Sunak is unconservative for rowing back on Britain’s net zero pledges, says Lord Deben, formerly one of the Government’s most senior climate advisers.
Three months after stepping down as chair of the Climate Change Committee (CCC), the Tory grandee has hit out at the Prime Minister for scaling back key environmental policies.
“The Government has failed the offshore wind industry, it has failed the motorcar industry, just like it once failed the housebuilding industry,” says the former Conservative Minister.
“I am a Conservative because I think that free enterprise works and that you have to work with industry and the private sector to make this country richer and better so you can help the poorest.
“To run policies which actually undermine some of our biggest industries seems to me not to be conservative at all. I have been described as a rebel but I am not a Conservative rebel.
“I am a Conservative. It is now the Government that is rebelling against Conservatives.”
Fuelling Lord Deben’s anger is Sunak’s net zero u-turn but he has also lambasted the Government’s failed offshore wind auction earlier this month – when not a single firm applied to build new wind farms.
He is also upset with how the PM has undermined the CCC, an organisation he chaired for nearly 11 years.
Such criticism may shock some Tories, particularly given Lord Deben’s long and distinguished career in the party.
Lord Deben, then John Gummer, was first elected to Parliament in 1970 as MP for Lewisham West, and became chairman of the Conservative Party from 1983 to 1985.
He was appointed secretary of state for agriculture, fisheries and food in 1989 and then environment secretary in 1993.
A peerage followed in 2010 and he was appointed chair of the CCC two years later.
However, Lord Deben is as much an environmentalist as a Conservative.
His anger is directly linked to the PM’s decision, announced in his speech, to delay the ban on petrol and diesel cars from 2030 to 2035 – and the impact that will have on the UK’s emissions.
The announcement came just weeks after Michael Gove, the Levelling-Up Secretary, said the 2030 target was “immovable”.
Lord Deben says such policy reversals destroy trust in government.
“These changes made industry extremely cross because they’ve invested billions and this will make it more difficult for them to get a proper return.
“That’s why he received such an attack from the whole of the motor industry. What business wants from the Government is ambition, certainty, and consistency. This change reduced the certainty, was inconsistent and not nearly ambitious enough.”
Sunak also relaxed the deadlines that would have made it progressively harder, and eventually impossible, to install new gas boilers in homes.
Heat pumps, the main alternative to boilers were, he claimed, expensive and ineffective for many homes.
The result, says Lord Deben, is a disaster for the UK’s hopes of reaching net zero.
Heating UK homes generates about 68m tonnes of CO2 a year – nearly 20pc of the country’s total – so cutting it fast is essential to meeting net zero.
As for the Government’s recent offshore wind auction, which lacked a single bidder, Lord Deben points the finger at former Energy Secretary Grant Shapps.
“The reason for that was Mr Grant Shapps,” he says. “He failed to listen to everyone’s advice about the minimum price that he would have to set for the power those windfarms would generate.
“The price of construction materials has risen very sharply over the past year – up to a 40pc increase in everything from bricks to concrete. But Grant Shapps refused to accept that and set a price so low that they didn’t get any applications.”
Aside from attacking the Government, Lord Deben is also quick to defend the CCC following his recent departure.
The CCC is largely a Tory creation even though it was established under the Climate Change Act in 2008 – when a Labour government was in power.
The driving force behind it was Peter Ainsworth, then the Conservative shadow environment spokesman, who worked with Friends of the Earth and other pressure groups, first to draft the legislation and then to build cross-party support.
Ainsworth’s work, supported by Lord Deben, saw the act gaining an overwhelming cross-party majority with only 5 MPs out of 646 voting against it.
It has kept that support ever since – but Lord Deben is concerned that his own party is now at risk of undermining one of its own most important legacies.
“It was an act invented by the Conservatives,” he says. “Ainsworth sold it to all the other political parties while we were in opposition.
“The whole idea of the Climate Change Act was that parliament voted democratically on a long-term carbon budget every five years, so we vote on the future budgets quite a way ahead.
“The idea was to give people and businesses security – they know what is going to happen.”
He warns that Sunak’s speech last week risks breaking that commitment.
The CCC’s need for a staunch political defender was evident last week when the PM listed a series of radical proposals for cutting emissions which he hinted had come from the CCC.
They included a tax on meat, new levies on flying and an obligation for households to sort their rubbish into seven bins.
No one at the CCC had allegedly heard of such proposals but it did little to defend itself. Lord Deben’s interim replacement is Professor Piers Forster, a renowned academic with little experience of the political knockabout that comes with the job.
“He is a brilliant man but this job really needs someone with an understanding of how Whitehall and Westminster work,” says Lord Deben.
“No one had said these things. We can’t find any suggestion of having seven bins and there’s certainly no proposal not to eat meat. And there’s never been a proposal from the Climate Change Committee that we should tax people’s flights.”
What then, is driving Downing Street to make such suggestions? The obvious suspicion is that, with by-elections looming next month, in mid-Bedfordshire and Tatton, Sunak is hoping to repeat his unexpected victory in Uxbridge last July.
Then, it was the battle over London’s Ultra Low Emission Zones but next could be a scrap over the future of net zero.
Unsurprisingly, this puts Lord Deben in a bind. Yet, despite all his current irritation and anger, he insists his Conservative enthusiasm remains strong.
There’s no doubt that he will be rooting for the Tories at the next election. But he will be a powerful critic of any further weakening of the party’s climate policy.