HomeScience & EnvironmentRishi Sunak, Behind in U.K. Polls, Embraces Divisive Politics

Rishi Sunak, Behind in U.K. Polls, Embraces Divisive Politics

When Greenpeace activists draped Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s baronial country house in black fabric last month to protest his energy policies, public reaction focused on the troubling lapse in security. But on another level, the stunt showed that Mr. Sunak’s brand of hard-edge politics was hitting home in Britain.

Greenpeace said it was outraged by the government’s decision to issue new licenses for oil and gas exploration in the North Sea — part of a broader retreat on climate policy that is edging Britain away from its ambitious commitments to phase out fossil fuels. Mr. Sunak, who was out of the country at the time, won sympathy from many who said the tactics of the activists had gotten out of control.

Climate policy is one of several fronts where Britain’s beleaguered Conservative government is drawing sharp lines on emotive issues, hoping to set itself apart from the opposition Labour Party, which, after years of Tory scandals and economic setbacks, has built a double-digit lead in polls and now increasingly behaves like a government in waiting.

Over a politically fractious summer, the Tory government has gone after London’s Labour mayor, Sadiq Khan, for his expansion of a low-emission zone for vehicles. It herded asylum seekers onto a barge docked on the southwest coast of England. And it has showcased itself as the party of law and order, with Mr. Sunak frowning at a fearsome-looking knife used in a street crime during a visit to a London police station.

“It’s part of their strategy to provoke outrage,” said Tom Burke, a onetime government adviser who is the chairman of E3G, an environmental think tank. “You provoke outrage to reassure your base. It’s exactly the strategy Trump is pursuing in the U.S.”

“You’re also,” he said, “setting a trap for Labour.”

In the case of climate policy, Mr. Burke said the opposition party had walked into the trap. A messy internal squabble over the low-emission zone broke out between Mr. Khan and the Labour leader, Keir Starmer, after Labour lost a by-election — a special election for a vacant parliamentary seat — in the London suburb of Uxbridge in July. The Conservatives turned the mayor’s plan into a weapon against Labour, pointing out that it would penalize owners of older, more polluting vehicles.

Emboldened by the Uxbridge victory, the Conservatives set out to paint Labour as the enemy of car owners everywhere. Mr. Sunak ordered a review of what he called “anti-motorist” policies across Britain; an out-of-touch Labour Party, he said, did not know how much people needed their cars. The Mail on Sunday, a pro-Tory tabloid, claimed that Mr. Khan had a secret plan to create a “carless society.”

Still, exploiting so-called wedge issues carries equal risks for the Conservatives. Far-reaching climate policies enjoy broad support in Britain, even among some right-wing voters who view protecting the country’s natural heritage as an inherently conservative instinct. In appeasing a narrow slice of its base, experts said, the party risked turning off swing voters and environmentally conscious supporters in the south.

“This is a classic attempt to hive off white, culturally conservative, economically disadvantaged voters who might otherwise be tempted to return to Labour,” said Tim Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London.

“The anti-net-zero line may play well with people who are suffering from a cost-of-living crisis,” Mr. Bale said, referring to the government’s suggestion that it may delay or water down a range of green goals. “But there is potential for backlash because there is quite widespread support for environmental policies.”

The party will find it difficult to go back on landmark pledges like phasing out the sale of new gasoline and diesel cars by 2030, said Nick Timothy, who was a chief of staff to a previous Conservative prime minister, Theresa May. “Even if,” he added, “I do suspect the politics of the car might be quite helpful to us.”

Among Mr. Sunak’s influential advisers is Isaac Levido, an Australian political strategist who helped engineer Boris Johnson’s landslide election victory in 2019 with the slogan “Get Brexit done.” In Australia, Mr. Levido advised the right-wing Liberal Party, which harnessed skepticism about climate policies to win in the same year. (It was swept out of power in 2022, suggesting the limits of such a message.)

Mr. Sunak’s enthusiasm for wedge issues is hardly uncommon for an incumbent leader facing a forbidding political landscape. With Britain’s stubborn inflation, stagnant economy, depleted public finances and long waiting times at hospitals, analysts said the government would find it hard to wage a successful campaign with a broadly positive message (Mr. Sunak must hold an election by January 2025).

Last week, a new scandal erupted over faulty concrete in schools, hospitals and courts, which analysts say the government had been repeatedly warned about in recent years. More than 100 schools will have to close buildings, and British newspapers reported that some hospitals are also at risk of collapse.

At first glance, the pivot to populist rhetoric seems an awkward fit for Mr. Sunak. When he took office last October he presented himself as a sensible technocrat, determined to shelve the misbegotten tax policies of his predecessor, Liz Truss, and the chaotic politics of her predecessor, Mr. Johnson. A Stanford M.B.A. and the son of Indian immigrants, Mr. Sunak, 43, has shown less appetite for some of the inflammatory tactics that Mr. Johnson relished, like bashing the BBC.

“Somehow, it is hard to take Sunak seriously when he does the wedge issues,” said Jonathan Powell, who was chief of staff to a Labour prime minister, Tony Blair. “I don’t think they boomerang so much as just don’t work.”

Other political commentators argue that the heavy focus on issues like immigration and crime is less of a stretch for Mr. Sunak than it might appear. “Rishi is much more socially conservative than Boris ever was,” said Matthew Goodwin, a professor of politics at the University of Kent who has written in support of Tory policies and has at times advised Mr. Sunak’s team.

The problem for Conservatives, Mr. Goodwin said, is that the government’s record on these issues, particularly immigration, has not lived up to its rhetoric. Mr. Sunak has failed to fulfill his promise to stop asylum seekers from crossing the English Channel in small boats. The total number of people who have made this hazardous trip since 2018 crossed a symbolic milestone of 100,000 last month.

The plan to house 500 of these arrivals in a barge, the Bibby Stockholm, backfired spectacularly when the vessel had to be evacuated after bacteria that can cause Legionnaires’ disease were found in the water system. Another plan, to fly illegal immigrants to Rwanda, has been stymied by legal challenges.

Faced with these obstacles, Mr. Sunak is turning the blame on Labour. In July, he posted on Twitter, “This is what we’re up against. The Labour party, a subset of lawyers, criminal gangs — they’re all on the same side, propping up a system of exploitation that profits from getting people to the UK illegally.”

Downing Street did not respond to a request for comment on its strategy.

Mr. Sunak spent last week promising to crack down on crime. He expressed alarm at reports of stabbings at the Notting Hill Carnival in London and confirmed a plan to ban machetes and “zombie knives.”

Crime may offer the Conservatives more favorable political terrain against Labour, some analysts said, particularly if they can poke holes in Mr. Starmer’s own record as a former leader of the national prosecution service.

But even this territory could be treacherous. The Tories presided over a prolonged period of austerity, with sharp funding cuts to the criminal justice system. Labour noted that more than 90 percent of crimes had gone unsolved in the 12 months ending last March, the highest level on record.

And the opposition has not hesitated to use hardball tactics of its own. In April, Labour accused the prime minister in a social-media post of failing to sufficiently punish perpetrators of sex crimes against children. “Do you think adults convicted of sexually assaulting children should go to prison?” the post asked. “Rishi Sunak doesn’t.”

Few doubt Mr. Sunak has the stomach for cut-and-thrust politics. After a quiet weekend at his house in North Yorkshire in late August — where a police car now guards the gate — he returned to Downing Street and announced appointments that put politically minded loyalists in key ministries like energy, which oversees climate policy.

But on the eve of Britain’s political season, others questioned how effective Mr. Sunak, a former Goldman Sachs banker who also has a vacation home in Santa Monica, Calif., would be as a culture warrior on the campaign trail.

“There is a contradiction between Sunak’s vibe and his convictions,” Professor Bale said. “While he looks like this tech bro, global smoothie, he’s a pretty right-wing traditional Conservative.”

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