Picture the scene. It is May 2050, and Rishi Sunak emerges from his hyperbaric oxygen chamber having enjoyed an afternoon nap after a grand lunch to celebrate his 70th birthday. He looks out from his new Santa Monica mansion at the violent storms gathering over the Pacific.
The bulletins are full of bad news: food riots, burning forests all over the planet, 500 million climate refugees seeking sanctuary, heart disease soaring everywhere. Thank goodness Yuval Noah Harari was right in his book Homo Deus – published in 2015, the year Sunak became an MP – to predict that an “upgraded” elite would be able to afford the new biotech therapies and enhancements that protect him and his family from such perils.
Thank goodness that his hedge fund, managed by the tiny quantum computer on his desk, has generated more than enough for their billion-dollar, climate-proof luxury survival unit in Colorado and the private jet to get them there when things get really bad. Didn’t he say that it would all work out?
Scroll back to September 2023, and Sunak’s extraordinary speech last week on net zero. Rarely, if ever, have I heard a more dishonest performance by a prime minister.
It took quite some nerve for a politician who has devoted so much time to dehumanising desperate migrants in “small boats” to declare himself hostile to “versions of change that never go beyond a slogan”. It required something close to magical thinking for Sunak to present himself as a moderate rejecting “two extremes”.
Downing Street’s briefings to the weekend media sought to frame the speech as the first step in a lofty plan whereby, in keeping with the slogan that appeared on the front of the PM’s lectern, his government will now devote itself relentlessly to “long-term decisions for a brighter future”.
Really? To quote Willard, Martin Sheen’s character in Apocalypse Now, when he reaches Colonel Kurtz’s compound: “I don’t see any method at all.”
Reportedly, Sunak is set to scrap much of the proposed HS2 rail link. He apparently wants to replace A-levels with a “British baccalaureate”; to ban the sale of tobacco to anyone born on or after January 1 2009; and to slash inheritance tax.
He is said to be focused with statesmanlike rigour upon the long term. And yet he is also reported to have no plans to address the deepening crisis in social care. I suggest that, to borrow the words of Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s ex-strategist, Sunak is just “flooding the zone with shit”.
The most shocking feature of his speech was its sheer moral complacency. As he postponed a series of crucial deadlines – notably the year after which new cars will have to be electric – he claimed that the UK’s net zero strategy was so far ahead in international rankings that it could afford to be “more pragmatic, proportionate, and realistic”.
The independent Climate Change Committee, which monitors progress on emissions targets, does not share Sunak’s confidence. In June, its chairman, Lord Deben, warned that this country had “lost its clear global climate leadership”, was falling behind the US and the European Union, and should remember that “delay is not an option”.
To which the PM’s answer is, in effect: am I bothered? Pressed on his new strategy on last Thursday’s Today programme, he told Nick Robinson tetchily that it was for his critics to “explain to the country why they think it’s right that ordinary families up and down the country should have to fork out five, 10, 15 thousand pounds to make the transition earlier than is necessary”.
This is the diametric opposite of leadership. Let us say, for the sake of argument, that the UK is indeed ahead of counterpart nations in addressing the climate crisis. In the face of an existential threat, what Sunak calls “over-delivery” should be the cause of pride, not irritation. Does a fire crew that begins to get on top of a blaze down its hoses and head off for a relaxing lunch?
Climate change policy ought to be governed by a moonshot mentality: the faster the better. Instead, the PM speaks with resentment of the comparative performance of other countries and proposes to slow down British measures accordingly. So much for the “world-leading” UK. This is geopolitics reduced to: After you, Claude.
To put the speech in perspective: it was condemned in this weekend’s Observer by the Conservative MP Chris Skidmore as “the worst kind of culture war politics”. Skidmore is a former minister for energy and clean growth, and chaired the government’s independent review of net zero. But he was also one of the five authors of the notorious Britannia Unchained pamphlet published in 2012 (the other four were Priti Patel, Kwasi Kwarteng, Dominic Raab and Liz Truss); hardly an “eco-zealot”, then.
It is no accident that Donald Trump congratulated Sunak for “recognising this SCAM before it was too late”. With this barely concealed retreat from net zero (Sunak insists, mysteriously, that the target will still be met by 2050) and his claim that “we risk losing the consent of the British people”, the PM was blowing a sharp dog whistle to those, led by Nigel Farage, who want a referendum on climate change policy. Sunak’s message to this hardcore audience is: you won’t get such a vote – but I’m on your side.
Not the side of the future, though. No Tory leader in modern times has so brazenly rejected Edmund Burke’s principle that society is “a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born”.
Twenty-seven years hence, if the world misses its 2050 emissions targets, the skies are dark with ash, and most of our species (along with many others) is confronting annihilation, you can bet on one thing: Rishi Sunak himself will be fine. As for the rest of us, and our descendants, he has made his position all too clear.