Thatcher’s reign was brought to an end through alienating policies and a confrontational style of government; could Sunak be heading down the same track?
When he first stood for the Tory leadership, Rishi Sunak vowed to “govern as a Thatcherite.” His approach to governance so far bears several striking similarities with Thatcher’s. Like Thatcher, Sunak has so far pursued a divisive economic agenda in the name of fiscal discipline. Thatcher wholeheartedly rejected the Keynesian consensus of post-War governments, in favour of free-market capitalism. Sunak has been similarly brutal in his attack on the “green agenda” pursued by his predecessors. As Chancellor, Sunak endorsed plans to ban the sale of all-diesel and all-petrol cars by 2030, and to phase-out all fossil-fuel-powered boilers by 2026. Sunak now claims these deadlines are unreasonable for struggling households; the bans will instead take effect in 2035 and 2030, respectively.
Thatcher would often commit the “strawman fallacy”- knowingly misrepresenting her opponents’ stances to ridicule them. Sunak has been similarly “economical with the truth” on environmental policy. He claimed to be reversing a plan for households to use seven separate bins, when no such policy had ever existed. It was also dishonest of Sunak to claim he was reversing a proposed meat tax – again, that was never government policy.
The recent announcements have received a mixed response from Tory MPs. Several are committed environmentalists who were attracted by David Cameron’s “Vote Blue; Go Green” campaign. Alok Sharma, who chaired the 2021 Conference of the Parties (COP) summit, is one such example. As COP President, Sharma championed the net-zero cause, and demanded that more countries commit to phasing out the use of fossil fuels. He has since been vocal in arguing against any weakening of that “green agenda”. In addition to concerns about Britain’s reputation abroad, they also raise fears about the effect on the private sector. Delaying the ban on petrol and diesel cars, for instance, could slow the uptake of electric vehicles, and thus deter British firms from investing in them. Sunak’s populist rhetoric has delighted figures on the Tory right, who have long opposed the green agenda pursued by successive Tory Governments. But his repeated lying is incompatible with his earlier promise to demonstrate “integrity at the highest level” of Government. Given the pertinence of environmental issues for moderate Tories, Sunak may never regain their trust.
Labour’s Leader, Sir Keir Starmer, has so far exploited every opportunity to attack the Government’s clumsiness, branding Sunak “Inaction Man” at Prime Minister’s Questions. But he has also proved weak on environmental issues. A Labour Government will not reverse the change to the phase out of fossil fuel-powered boilers. Its underperformance at the Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election has led the leadership to reconsider other environmental policies, such as taxes on polluting cars. The Tories narrowly held the seat by exploiting opposition to the Ultra-Low Emission Zones expansion. Realising the issue had become politically contentious, the leadership ditched a document affirming its support for clean air zones. Though both parties have affirmed their commitments to the net-zero cause, it seems they are equally reluctant to support the policies required to achieve it.
Thatcher misjudged the public’s mood when she introduced the “poll tax” – a flat tax used to fund local government. Thatcher and her colleagues positioned the policy as a credible, grown-up way of making councils more accountable for their use of public money. But the tax was met with fierce opposition, which subsequently forced Thatcher to resign as Prime Minister. Sunak may have made a similar error in devising his environmental policy. Polling by Onward, a Tory-supporting think tank, has found that 56% of the general electorate are in favour of the next-zero pledge; 49% of Tory voters are in favour, with only 20% against. Though the Tories have enjoyed a recent bounce in the opinion polls, the recent announcements will likely weaken their electoral support in the long run by alienating moderate voters. Softening the ban on petrol and diesel cars, for instance, might receive plaudits from papers such as the Daily Mail and Telegraph. But it risks eroding the Tories’ support in urban areas by signalling a reluctance to address air pollution.
Thatcher proved highly resilient in the face of constant pressure for her to resign. Her rhetoric was often inflammatory, but it was effective in persuading “small-c” conservatives that she was the only politician capable of leading Britain through difficult circumstances. Sunak has responded to accusations of inaction by taking a similarly confrontational approach. Like Thatcher, he may find this approach alienates the very voters whose support he desperately needs.