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Britain’s Hot New Import From America: The Climate Culture Wars

As the public sours on the ruling Tories, Conservative Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is making a last-ditch attempt to vilify the Labour Party as “anti-motorist.”

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak
Peter Nicholls/Getty Images
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak sits in an old Special Branch police vehicle that was used to transport Margaret Thatcher, on July 29 in Bexley, England.

To climate-conscious Americans, the British Tories of the last decade or so might seem oddly refreshing. It was Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May who led the charge to enshrine the country’s net-zero commitment into law. Boris Johnson—known to many in the United States as a bizarro-world version of Trump—touted his own version of a green industrial policy and was well known, as mayor of London, for expanding the city’s bike-share program. Even Margaret Thatcher, in a much earlier time, had some prescient words of warning about the climate crisis.

Thirteen years into Conservative rule, which may soon be over, the party’s tune seems to be changing. In recent weeks, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has come out swinging against a municipal program known as ULEZ: Ultra-Low Emissions Zones. In essence, the program—meant to reduce high air pollution in certain parts of London—charges drivers of more polluting vehicles the equivalent of $16 each day they want to drive within the zones. Specialty service and commercial vehicles like buses and lorries are exempt.

Ironically, it was the Tories who first encouraged the scheme. Yet Sunak, out of political desperation, is now awkwardly trying to wage a climate culture war more reminiscent of Republicans in the U.S. “I’m on the drivers’ side,” he declared. Chiding “anti-motorist Labour” and their “anti-car schemes,” he posed for a strange photo op in which he’s smiling, seemingly alone, behind the wheel of a 1976 Rover he claimed to have been Thatcher’s. (It was actually used by her bodyguards.) Beyond the pro-car antics, the Tories have emphasized other moves targeting green policies, like granting hundreds of new licenses for oil and gas drilling in the North Sea and lowering the country’s long-standing price on carbon.

That emphasis, of course, is more rhetorical than anything else. New drilling permits had been in the works for a while, and the Tories haven’t nixed their commitment to end the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030.

Their anti-green push was inspired, it seems, by an election held in late July in the London suburbs of Uxbridge and South Ruislip—the seat held by Boris Johnson before he resigned in June, no less. With Labour Party London Mayor Siddiq Khan planning to expand ULEZ to the suburbs, Conservative candidate Steve Tuckwell made opposition to the program central to his campaign, dubbing his race a “referendum on ULEZ.” Against expectation, he narrowly kept the seat in Tory hands.

With Conservatives facing a likely defeat in a general election expected sometime next year, the win—their only victory that day—offered a bit of juice to a party mired by scandal, internal turmoil, and a cost of living crisis. Never mind that Tuckwell also had distanced himself from the Tories: His campaign literature didn’t feature a single picture of Sunak’s face or the Conservative Party logo.

But the Tories weren’t the only ones who interpreted the by-election result as a climate referendum. Labour has already watered down a number of its green commitments, as it’s purged left-wing members under leader Keir Starmer. Since last month’s election, he’s voiced concerns about ULEZ and whether the party’s climate policies are still going too far. “We are doing something very wrong if policies put forward by the Labour Party end up on each and every Tory leaflet,” Starmer said in response to Tuckwell’s win. “I don’t think there is any doubt that ULEZ was the reason that we lost the election in Uxbridge,” he said elsewhere.

As some political commentators have pointed out, though, the Green Party got more votes than the narrow margin between Labour and Conservatives—potentially a sign that Labour voters are fleeing the party over softening climate commitments. There may have been other factors weighing on the by-election that had nothing to do with climate at all. As political scientist Rob Ford wrote:

Uxbridge has a long history of resisting Labour advances, suggesting an unusually solid Conservative vote. Hillingdon, its London borough, has continued to return Conservative council majorities even as the capital as a whole has swung strongly towards Labour, and the area swung against Labour in the 2021 London Mayoral and Assembly elections. Labour has failed twice before in seemingly winnable by-elections in Uxbridge, a patch of London which though often marginal has only returned a Labour MP once since 1959.

As the Tories face likely defeat in upcoming general elections, picking up microwaved anti-green talking points from across the pond may be an exercise in rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. The question now is whether Labour will preemptively cede more ground to its right, limiting its prospects for rolling out ambitious climate policies before it even steps foot in Downing Street.