Green backlash? U.K. leader ignites battle on driving, which could be a sign of upcoming climate change fight

LONDON — Posing in a car once owned by conservative icon Margaret Thatcher, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak explained why he was launching a media blitz to burnish his own credentials as a champion of the average voter against what he considers state overreach in the name of the environment.

LONDON – Posing in the car that was once owned by the conservative icon Margaret Thatcher British Prime Minister Rishi sunak explained his media campaign to burnish himself as the champion of average voters against what he believes is state overreach for the sake of the environment.

Signaling his opposition to a slate of environmentally-friendly policies, Sunak said on Twitter Sunday that he knows “how important cars are for families to live their lives,” unlike the country’s “anti-motorist” opposition Labour Party.

Sunak’s embattled Conservative Government announced that it would review “anti-car measures” aimed at improving the air quality and reducing congestion, and also announce a massive increase in oil and gas drilling permits in Britain’s North Sea.

Prime Minister Cameron claims that the U.K. could do all of this while still achieving net-zero emissions by 2050. It was a surprising turn of events in a country where green politics had been a largely accepted political position. Experts told NBC News that it could be the beginning of a larger shift, in which right-wing politicians see opposition to green policies in order to gain votes.

Sunak, boosted by the Conservative Party’s surprise victory in the local elections last month where it emphasized opposition to new charges in London for drivers, has won over voters by joining a protest group that views such attempts to restrict automobile usage as an assault on personal freedoms.

This move comes at a time when several European countries are experiencing political turmoil due to environmental issues. The Farmer-Citizen Movement in the Netherlands has become a major political party thanks to its fierce resistance to government plans to reduce or close thousands of farms. Meanwhile, Poland’s right-wing populist Government has criticised the European Union’s Renewable Energy Targets, which commits its 27 member countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 55% by 2030.

“What we’re seeing, just as in the case of immigration, is a center-right political party adopting some of the tropes and language of right-wing populist radical parties who often portray themselves as the friends of motorists and claim that all environmental concerns are exaggerated,” said Tim Bale. He is a professor of politics at Queen Mary University, London, and an expert of the Conservative Party.


Greenpeace activists protest ar British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s manor house in northern England on Thursday.


Luca Marino / AFP – Getty Images

On July 21, the Conservatives won an unexpected by-election for the seat in London’s west suburbs that former Prime Minister Boris Johnson had vacated.

The election was a referendum about ULEZ (the ultra-low emissions zone), which charges older vehicles with high pollution levels $12.50 ($16) a daily fee to drive through central London boroughs. The zone will be extended to Greater London at the end of August, and suburban residents’ fears over it gave the Conservatives an important victory.

Some protesters are heavily influenced by right-wing conspiracy theory. The level of unrest is so high that cameras set up to enforce the new scheme have either been vandalized, or stolen.


A BP oil platform in the North Sea off Scotland, pictured in 2014.


Andy Buchanan / AFP – Getty Images file

Sadiq K Khan, Labour’s London mayor, has passionately defended this policy, saying it is needed as thousands of people die in London each year due to air pollution.

A vast majority of vehicles will also not pay an emissions tax. The Uxbridge results caused Sir Keir to waver on ULEZ, wanting to avoid any wedge issues that might help the Conservatives stay in power.

Bale said that Sunak’s media campaign comes at a time when many Conservative legislators and party members are concerned about the cost of environmental policies in Britain and their limited impact.

He said that Uxbridge had accelerated the voices of those who were against the plan. “Given the difficulties the government is facing on so many fronts, it probably encouraged the government weaponize this issue to mobilize some of its supporters,” he added.

However, the Uxbridge victory defied all political gravity.

Labour won the seats of Selby and Ainsty, in North Yorkshire. This is a dramatic, unprecedented change from the previous year, when a Conservative legislator had triumphed with 20,000 votes.

According to opinion polls , there could be even more: Labour is leading by around 20% a year before a national elections.

Some analysts question Sunak’s decision, given that the cost-of-living crisis is dominating the minds of voters and the fact that most of the country has not been affected by emission zones or other low traffic schemes. In a poll conducted in May, 39% of Londoners favored ULEZ.


Protesters demonstrate outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London last month against the expansion of a vehicle emission charging zone.


Vuk Valcic / SOPA Images/LightRocket via Gett

Many rural lawmakers backed Sunak’s position, but former Conservative energy minister Chris Skidmore claimed that the North Sea drilling expansion placed Sunak “on wrong side of the history.”

Greenpeace protesters took action against the new North Sea licensing and draped a black oily covering over Sunak Sunak’s house in his North Yorkshire Constituency while the family were on vacation in California on Thursday.

In British politics, the desire to appeal to what is perceived as a median voter, which is often viewed as a driving force, has not been new. Neil Lee, professor of economic geography, London School of Economics, believes that this debate, which is perceived as a trade-off between environmental policy and personal liberty, is a sign of what’s to come.

He said, “I believe that environmental policies will be more prominent on the agenda in the future as climate change and environmental impacts become more evident.”

“It is not the first time that small groups have held back actions which we, I believe, in our heart know we must make.

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