Burning huge bonfire against the blue sky.
Artillery Row

A bonfire of the straw men

Rishi Sunak declares war on policies that never existed

There was an air of desperation in Rishi Sunak’s voice as he began to address the nation on Wednesday. Earlier in the week, the idea had been that he would deliver this speech on Friday, but it had been brought forward because of a leak. Even so, it was unusual for a prime minister to deliver a speech like this in Downing Street. Perhaps they feared it would be impossible to find a public place where he wouldn’t be jeered.

And so we were invited to the government’s safe space, the Allegra Stratton Memorial Good News Suite. His audience was a smattering of supportive MPs and government ministers, people whose actual jobs depend on him. 

“I know people in our country are frustrated with our politics,” he began. “They feel that much gets promised, but not enough is delivered.” This section now appears at the start of all speeches by senior Conservatives, as though saying it will stop people from thinking too hard about which party has been in charge of not delivering for more than a decade.

People hated game-playing, he said, and short-termism, and the lack of accountability. It was a truly magnificent opening for a speech that was intended to tear up climate change plans in order to create a dividing line with Labour, safe in the knowledge that Sunak himself will be long gone when the consequences arrive. 

Could he beat that? He could, in the very next line. People were tired of slogans, he said, standing behind a lectern that read “Long Term Decisions For A Brighter Future”.

There was a problem with our democracy, he explained. Important decisions were being taken without “debate and fundamental scrutiny”. That was why, he didn’t add, he’d decided to wait until Parliament was suspended to announce a major policy change. If you listened very carefully at this point, you could hear the Speaker of the Commons Lindsay Hoyle’s head exploding in the distance.

The good news, Sunak explained, was that he was going to “change the way our politics works”. He was going to do this by courageously giving the biggest lunatics on the Tory backbenches whatever they want. It wasn’t entirely clear how this was different from how our politics has worked for the last 13 years.

He was going, he said, to announce a new approach to climate change. Not, to be clear, that he doesn’t think climate change was real. “It is real and happening,” he said. He’s not one of those lunatics who think Bill Gates puts microchips in vaccines and that Russell Brand is the victim of a conspiracy by Big Pharma, good grief no. He just thinks that those lunatics may have a point when it comes to the future of the planet.

There had never, he said, been a “properly informed national debate” about the government’s Net Zero plans. Although we didn’t get one of those about him becoming prime minister, and he’s managed to live with that. Britain was doing incredibly well at reducing emissions, he said, and that is why we have to change course.

And so targets that we had been assured only weeks ago were set in stone, over gas-guzzling cars and home heating, are now being relaxed. The prime minister repeatedly told us he was making the hard, brave choice. Although at the same time, he explained that everything would be easier as a result and that this would be wildly popular. Which made it seem not as hard as all that. 

There were, buried in there, some reasonable points. The new car target matches Germany’s. There are rural homes where heating options are complicated. But the clue about how serious and new-politicsy all this was came when he began to list other things that would go. 

“The proposal for government to interfere in how many passengers you can have in your car,” he said, announcing a proposal none of us had heard of. “I’ve scrapped it. The proposal that we should force you to have seven different bins in your home. I’ve scrapped it.” Taxing meat? Banning holidays? “I’ve scrapped those too.” He was declaring war on policies that had never existed. It was a bonfire of the straw men.

The plan to force teenagers to kill each other for food in a televised contest? It’s no more. The plan to make food out of human corpses? Gone. The plan to build killer robots with a four-year lifespan to work in the off-world colonies? Not on Sunak’s watch, no siree.

He wanted something to put on leaflets at the next election

What was all this in aid of? He explained: “I guess the question for all those people who are criticising this approach is to ask them to justify to all those families up and down the country why they think it’s right to ask them to find five, ten, fifteen, twenty thousand pounds at a time when budgets are obviously tight.” He repeated this several times, like a spin doctor briefing a particularly slow political editor. There it was. He wanted something to put on leaflets at the next election, a Labour climate tax bombshell.

In 20 years covering British politics, I can recall only one other announcement which mixed such transparent cynicism with so many pleas for us to report this as a courageous and principled decision. It was from David Miliband, postponing plans for an electorally painful council tax revaluation. It’s not hard to tell the difference between the two men. One is Oxford-educated, immensely self-satisfied, was hugely hyped but lost a leadership election, and is happier in America. The other is Ralph Miliband’s son.

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