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Any Old Iron

September 22nd 2023

How many bins is too many bins? Rishi Sunak believes the answer to that crucial question is ‘7’. And now that he is Prime Minister he is very clear that he will wield his power to ensure that no British household has to struggle with a septet of waste disposal containers.

This was the week that Sunak was bounced into announcing changes to Britain’s Net Zero targets and timescales. Significantly, he has shifted the target for banning petrol and diesel cars, and gas boilers - from 2030 to 2035. Less significantly, he also promised not to introduce a meat tax and - of course - promised to tackle the proliferation of waste receptacles.


If he was bounced, who did the bouncing? There are two culprits here, one who wielded the knife and one who planted the idea in the first place.

Someone at Number 10 leaked the plans, forcing Sunak to deliver a hasty and unplanned press conference to share his new stance on climate action. The leaker, one presumes, was so thrilled with the partial about-turn that they wanted to make sure it went public before Sunak’s team got cold feet. As a result, the UK spent New York Climate Week - to which we had dispatched both poor old Alok Sharma and Oliver Dowden - rowing back on our climate commitments. But the objective was achieved, and now Sunak’s hands have been dipped in the blood.

But why the change of heart? Rishi Sunak was, after all, the Chancellor in the Government that made many of these commitments in the first place.

You don’t need - in politics - to believe in something in order to go along with it or enable it. British politics would fall apart overnight if Ministers started developing too deep a political conscience. That’s the way it works. And Rishi Sunak has never been particularly animated about the climate. It simply doesn’t interest him, as Zac Goldsmith observed recently in his caustic resignation letter. And not only does the PM not really care about this stuff, he can see a political advantage to jettisoning it.

The Government’s surprise (narrow) survival in Uxbridge has taught some Tories that environmental policies which touch people’s day-to-day lives can become pretty toxic, pretty quickly. Sunak is trying to set a trap for Labour so that he can go to the voters with the message that Kier Starmer is going to break into your house, rip out your boiler and write-off your car. Critical to landing that message is creating some distance between the parties where once there was consensus. He’s achieved that.

And for all that it is easy to mock the bins and the meat taxes and all the guff that surrounded the announcement, the fact that it’s funny doesn’t mean that it isn’t effective. If we haven’t learned that from the era of Johnson, then we haven’t learned anything. And the truth is that people do get frustrated about being forced to sort through all their trash. And there are plenty of people out there advocating that we treat sausages like cigarettes. And Rishi Sunak is right to say - for all the anger at the decision - that what we had before was not a plan but a promise, a rather empty one at that.

But the answer to not having a proper plan on the climate is to make one, not to give up. And as the reaction from businesses from Ford to E.ON makes clear, what Sunak has done has profound consequences both for the environment and for investment decisions that we need in order to create growth and jobs. The Prime Minister picked politicking over pragmatic planning - the decision belies the argument that he represents careful government that contrasts with his predecessors’ approaches. He is rolling the dice and gambling both our prosperity and our wellbeing.

Will it work? It is difficult to see this moving the dial significantly. 2030 is a long way off for most people, and there are more pressing issues facing most households at the moment than worrying about the availability of charging points in a decade’s time. The outrage this has generated amongst a certain type of backbench Tory is unhelpful noise. And it is very very unlikely that the party’s anti-Net Zero brigade will be sated for long. After all, the overarching target remains. As with Europe, the Tory hard right will bank this and move on to the next demand. They are never satisfied. They are insatiable.

But what this week does tell us is that Sunak isn’t going down without a fight. He hasn’t given up and he is prepared to do what he thinks it will take to give himself a chance of snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.

Sunak will not go quietly into that good bin.