Political Print: Sunak shifts the political goalposts

Rhetoric from the new prime minister and his Labour counterpart suggests green growth could be a key battleground at the next election. Nick Hughes reports.

“She was always interested in cutting posts, cutting budgets, removing people [and] making the place smaller.” That’s how a former Defra official who worked under Liz Truss described the political philosophy of the (then) new prime minister to me at the start of September. True to form, Truss spent her excruciating 45-day tenure cutting taxes, cutting regulations and ultimately cutting herself and her government adrift from political and economic reality.

With Truss swiftly and savagely dispatched by Conservative MPs, into the void has stepped new PM Rishi Sunak who faces the unenviable task of picking through the wreckage of Truss’s premiership and deciding what to salvage and what to scrap.

What this all means for businesses, food and the environment will hopefully crystallise over the weeks and months ahead. Although not someone with obvious green credentials Sunak is generally considered more of a political pragmatist than the ideological Truss – someone willing to listen to evidence and form his opinions accordingly.

Sunak has already shown himself to be more flexible than his intractable predecessor. Having initially said he would not attend the COP27 summit in Egypt this month he performed a U-turn last week following a backlash from MPs (including many within his own party) and NGOs, declaring on Twitter that “there is no long-term prosperity without action on climate change”. As U-turns go this was one to be applauded despite the suspicion it was driven more by political expediency than a breakneck conversion to the climate cause. 

Policy hints

Elsewhere, Sunak and his new cabinet colleagues have dropped some encouraging early hints about where their environmental priorities might lie. Conservation charities had reacted with rage to plans developed by Truss to establish investment zones across the country in which planning rules would be relaxed and environmental protections potentially weakened or ripped up. Levelling up secretary Michael Gove has since said he intends to review investment zones and their impact on the environment. He told Sky News: "I've been very clear and the prime minister has been very clear that under no circumstances will we weaken environmental protections."

Fracking is also dead under Sunak who has recommitted to a 2019 Conservative manifesto that pledged to “protect and restore our natural environment after leaving the EU”. This guarantee also spells good news for the future of the environmental land management scheme (ELMS), which will redirect subsidies to farmers away from land-based payments towards the provision of public goods. The scheme was previously placed under review by former Defra secretary of state Ranil Jayawardena, sparking rumours that a manifesto pledge stating that farmers would have to farm in ways that protect and enhance the natural environment in return for funding would be junked.

Sunak is also rumoured to be taking a more cautious, pragmatic approach to divergence from EU regulations. The FTreported he had “toned down his zeal for the speedy axing of EU legislation, amid warnings that such an exercise could tie up hundreds of civil servants at a time of national crisis”. In September, then business secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg set out plans to remove all remaining EU laws, including environmental regulations, by December 31st 2023 under the retained EU law (revocation and reform) bill. Green NGOs were left aghast by plans which would require Defra officials alone to review 570 pieces of law in under 18 months, while Food Standards Agency chair Susan Jebb recently warned about the “profound implications for public health and businesses alike”. Jebb wrote in an article for The Grocer: “While Brexit has presented us with opportunities to choose to do things differently, the timeframe set out by the government is tight and the scale of the task is immense. The FSA cannot simply sunset the laws for which it is responsible without a decline in food standards and a risk to public health.”

Cabinet cohesion?

And what of Sunak’s choice of cabinet, which has widely been interpreted as an attempt to bring together warring factions within the Conservative Party? Climate campaigners breathed an immediate sigh of relief when climate sceptic Rees-Mogg was axed as business secretary and replaced with green growth advocate Grant Shapps.

Moving into the hot seat at Defra, meanwhile, is Thérèse Coffey – a key Truss ally and cheerleader for her ill-fated deregulatory agenda. Green groups could be forgiven for remaining on high alert, yet Coffey does at least have experience of Defra where she worked as a junior minister between 2016 and 2019. This, lest we forget, was a period when the government delivered a blitz of policy making including the agriculture bill and the environment bill.

Coffey also brings useful experience of the waste and resources agenda which was part of her brief in her previous ministerial role. With Trudy Harrison returning in her role as parliamentary under-secretary of state for environment, there is at least some stability on the waste agenda as policies like extended producer responsibility and a deposit return scheme for England reach critical junctures.

Elsewhere, Steve Barclay returns for a second stint as health secretary a mere six weeks after being ousted from the job by Truss. Obesity policies pledged by Boris Johnson were rumoured to be under threat from a Truss-led government, including a ban on multi-buy deals for unhealthy foods. Barclay has yet to signal his support for maintaining the ban, which has been delayed for a year until October 2023, however pressure for the government to recommit to the new timeframe has arguably been weakened after Labour’s shadow health secretary Wes Streeting declared that banning 'BOGOF’ offers during a cost of living crisis would be wrong. Speaking to BBC News at the time of the Labour Party conference in September, Streeting said: "There are good public health arguments for banning such offers. [But] I'm not tin-eared enough to say that a Labour government would do that in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis. I don't think that would be the right thing to do right now."

Labour focus

With Labour still riding high in the polls, despite a small bounce back towards the Conservatives following Sunak’s appointment, the attention of businesses and campaign groups will increasingly be drawn to what the party has to say on key policy issues. Sir Keir Starmer has sought to draw clear dividing lines between the two main parties on net-zero and the green economy by pledging to make the UK the first major economy in the world to generate all of its electricity without using fossil fuels by 2030. The policy forms part of a green prosperity plan to turn the UK into a “green growth superpower”. NGOs reacted favourably to the idea while Starmer also promised to offer businesses “fair taxes, high skills and the long-term confidence to invest”. 

The rhetoric of both Starmer and Sunak throws up the welcome prospect of green growth becoming a key battleground in the next general election. That’s a dramatic shift from just a few weeks ago when Truss was trumpeting a bonfire of environmental regulations.

At a time of economic turmoil it should provide some solace to progressive business leaders that their political counterparts (publicly at least) view prosperity and sustainability as two sides of the same coin.

Yet the short-term challenges for the hospitality sector remain stark. More than a third of businesses are at risk of failure in early 2023 due to soaring costs, according to new research by UKHospitality, the British Beer and Pub Association, the British Institute of Innkeeping and Hospitality Ulster. Good businesses should not be allowed to go to the wall through no fault of their own and the eyes of the sector will be on new chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s fiscal statement on November 17th when further help for hospitality on business rates and VAT is deemed critical.

After the slow motion car crash of the Truss era, talk of a greener, more prosperous future across both sides of the political divide is welcome; but in the here and now survival remains the watchword for businesses.

Comments are closed.