A dialogue between Rishi and his alter ego, played here by Permanent Secretary Humphrey Appleby from ‘Yes Prime Minister’.
Rishi – Humphrey, things are really bad. My poll ratings are in a deep hole and I need advice on how to get out of it. We’ve tried ‘woke attacks’ but people don’t seem interested. We’ve also tried ‘small boats week’ but that was trashed by the Legionnaire’s scandal. We can’t go near schools because of the RAAC issue. So, what’s left?
Humphrey: Prime minister, me? I couldn’t possibly comment. But then again… (sotto voce). I think you could make something out of the Uxbridge & South Ruislip by election win, Sir. You just got over the line there because of your brilliant anti-ULEZ campaign – you threw out a few porkies about ‘everyone having to pay’, Labour started attacking its own mayor, and bingo – it worked, just. So, I think you could develop this.
Rishi – How precisely?
Humphrey: Well, this may sound a little mad, but, since we’ve nothing to lose, what about a U-turn on your Net Zero commitments?
Rishi: Are you crazy? We know most voters now want a full commitment to climate policies. Becoming carbon-neutral by 2050 is the only political consensus topic we have. Reneging on how to achieve it would surely be electoral suicide?
Humphrey: Not necessarily, Sir. It all depends on how you play it.
Humphrey: Well, you could pitch a U-turn around the idea of ‘saving money for poor people’. My thinking is that we could push a narrative about how deferring Net Zero plans for petrol cars and energy will serve their interests.
Do you recall the expression ‘cost-of-living crisis’, Sir? I know it’s not exactly on your priorities list but, believe me, it’s constantly mentioned in the left-wing media and so could be utilized:
‘Deferring Net Zero policies will help to protect the poor from punitive and excessive woke left measures during the cost-of-living crisis’. How does that sound, Sir?
Rishi: Interesting, but I foresee two problems. First, our Net Zero commitments were actually designed to save people money. How, for example, would I explain away the additional £8bn cost to renters for heating if I roll back insulation standards? As for transport, pushing back the ban on new petrol and diesel cars to 2035 doesn’t save poor people money since they don’t buy new cars anyway and it could possibly cost them more with increasing petrol prices. Similarly, the OBR has calculated that relying on gas for longer will now be more expensive than going low-carbon.
Second, since when did our party argue on the side of ‘poor people’? That’s not our style, Humphrey. We are the party of the wealthy; the poor are there to serve us. As that splendid Aussie CEO, Tim Gurner said when he spoke the quiet bit out loud: “we need to remind people that they work for the employer, not the other way round”. We shouldn’t be pandering to the poor, Humphrey.
Humphrey: Well, it’s your choice. But you are in a hole and desperate times call for desperate measures. Whatever your reservations, it shouldn’t be too difficult to persuade people that sticking with our previous Net Zero commitments will hurt their pockets. For example, you could defer the gas boiler replacement programme from 2025 to 2035, but also proclaim that –
“We’ll never force anyone to rip out their existing boiler and replace it with a heat pump“ BBC News
Ok, the claim implies, falsely, that practically everyone would have had to switch previously, but it will put the frighteners on them and present you as a heroic warrior against woke green madness. We don’t need to mention that the original target was only ever for boilers needing replacement anyway and we can keep quiet on how the delay will extend our dependence on volatile global gas prices. If things get expensive, Russia and the British weather always make for trusted scapegoats, eh? Nor do we need to mention Octopus Energy’s calculation that heat pumps will soon cost as little as £500.
If tactics like this don’t work, then you could add in a few ‘pretend’ bonuses. What about introducing some invented woke policies that you can then promise to remove?
Rishi: Like what?
Humphrey: Er, how about removing the tax on meat and the requirement to have seven recycling bins?
Rishi: Don’t be ridiculous, Humphrey. No-one’s going to fall for that.
Humphrey: Pardon me, Sir, but if you can get these notions into our supporting media as headlines, trust me, some people will believe it. Bear in mind that, with our First Past The Post voting system, those who wouldn’t believe it for a millisecond are all conveniently grouped together in particular seats and can be disregarded. All we need is just enough idiots to swallow it in key constituencies to get you over the line at the next general election, even on a minority vote. So, what’s not to like?
Rishi: Sounds risky, Humphrey, but I agree that we don’t have much choice. I don’t care about the backlash from the woke green mob. In fact, your plan could, I suppose, work in our favour by driving an even bigger wedge than we’ve already managed to create between them and the rest of the country. I like that (strokes chin).
But surely the U-turn you are proposing will hurt our friends too? What about car manufacturers? They’ve been building their business plans around specific Net Zero targets regarding clean cars. U-turning would really mess things up for them and they’d be furious. Do we really want headlines with BMW Oxford or the Tata gigafactory bosses screaming at us?
Also, surely the U-turn would deter foreign investment. They won’t come here if we start lagging behind other countries on those long-term green business targets that they rely on to plan their investment strategies.
Humphrey: Wise words, Sir, wise words. But the fundamental question is: do you put UK long-term interests such as climate commitments and economic prosperity first or the goal of winning the next general election?
Rishi: (laughs) Aha, yes, I see where you’re coming from. (Strokes chin again and Cartier watch). Also, I guess whilst it might harm some key UK business interests, it will boost my friendships in the fossil fuel industry.
Humphrey: If you’re worried about your U-turn looking like short-termism and Westminster game-playing, Sir, then just produce a speech lamenting that ‘it is, in fact, over-zealous applications of Net Zero targets which demonstrate short-termism and Westminster game-playing’. That will put them off the scent for a bit.
Also, don’t forget that we can trade on our status as ‘world beating’ Well, (chortling) aren’t we always, Sir? It’s true that ‘world beating’ applies more to our green promises than our delivery and ignores the fact that carbon emissions from UK transport, housing and farming haven’t budged in the last ten years. We have the least energy efficient housing in Europe, with 12 million homes D rated; also the exceptional years of carbon reduction were actually before our time.
But no matter! You can make your media focus on how brilliantly we are doing and not mention the rest. This will not only boost our green credentials and make our nation proud but give you an excuse to ‘rest on your laurels’ for a bit because, well Sir, ‘you deserve it’.
Rishi: As you’d noted, Humphrey, our green track record is ‘chequered’. But historically, the key demographic we need on board have proved very willing to believe we are ‘world beating’ on any topic we care to pop into our media headlines. So, it is, I concede, a useful slogan.
Humphrey: Also, your focus on ‘helping the poor’ will help to divert attention away from the suspicion that you were only ever pretending to be interested in Net Zero in the first place.
Rishi: Just one more thing, Humphrey. Since your plan involves undoing key mechanisms for achieving Net Zero by 2050, doesn’t it make the target itself look rather hollow?
Humphrey: I wouldn’t worry about that, Sir. Hollow targets are a familiar sight in this government. In fact, the shortcomings of a policy with reduced means of achieving it has a warmly nostalgic feel that will remind people of other recent party leaders. I know the proposal has a deep ring of implausibility. But frankly, Minister, your options are tiny now. It’s a gamble but my advice would be to give it a whirl.
Rishi: Humphrey, you’re my kind of bastard.
Humphrey: (Smiling impishly) Yes, Prime Minister.