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Ford and Eon lead furious business backlash to Sunak plan to row back on net zero pledges

PM has called an emergency cabinet meeting ahead of 4.30pm press conference to set out his net zero plans

Archie Mitchell,Adam Forrest
Thursday 21 September 2023 14:58 BST
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Michael Gove insists 2030 petrol and diesel car ban is immovable deadline

Ford is leading a furious business backlash against Rishi Sunak’s plans to water down some of Britain’s key climate pledges – including a delay to the 2030 ban on new petrol and diesel car sales.

The car giant said any relaxation of the 2030 target would undermine the government’s “ambition, commitment and consistency” – all of which are key to its manufacturing plans.

The ban on new petrol and diesel car sales was announced by Boris Johnson in November 2020, and as recently as July the government described the date as “immovable”.

And Ford’s UK chair Lisa Brankin said the auto industry is “investing to meet that challenge”. She cited a £40bn commitment to electrifying its cars, with a range of nine electric vehicles to launch by 2025.

Ms Brankin said the range is supported by £430m of investment in Ford’s UK facilities, with further funding planned based on the 2030 target. She said it was “vital catalyst to accelerate Ford into a cleaner future”.

The auto chief said business “needs three things from the UK government: ambition, commitment and consistency. A relaxation of 2030 would undermine all three”.

Mr Sunak’s row back of key net zero pledges also prompted warnings from a leading energy boss over jeopardising business confidence in the UK.

Chris Norbury, chief executive of energy supplier Eon UK said that gutting plans to phase out petrol and diesel powered cars would undermine the confidence companies needed to transition to greener products.

“From a business perspective, companies wanting to invest in the UK need long term certainty to create the jobs and economic prosperity the country needs,” he said.

As Mr Sunak called an emergency cabinet meeting ahead of a 4.30pm press conference to set out his plans:

  • Suella Braverman defied Tory critics to claim “we won’t save planet by bankrupting Britain”
  • Business chiefs lashed out at the PM, accusing him of compromising climate commitments for “short-term political gain”
  • One of the chancellor’s own economic advisors warned Mr Sunak’s plans would be “bad for the UK”
  • Tory MPs attacked the plans, urging Mr Sunak to be “exceptionally careful of seeking to extract political advantage” on green issues 
  • Boris Johnson warned Rishi Sunak Britain “cannot afford to falter” on net zero and urged him to give businesses confidence the government is “committed”
  • Labour described the plans as “a total farce”, but refused to commit to reinstating the 2030 petrol and diesel ban if it is axed
  • Tory former environment minister Lord Deben attacked Rishi Sunak’s “stupid” watering down of climate pledges, warning the move will be “extremely damaging” and may face a legal challenge
  • Another former Tory environment minister Lord Goldsmith called for a general election “now”, warning the PM was “dismantling Britain’s credibility” on climate change

Ms Brankin said Britain needs to be focused on “bolstering the electric vehicle market in the short term”, while supporting consumers amid the cost of living crisis.

Rishi Sunak holds his green box at the Cop26 summit (PA)

In another significant intervention, Dr Anna Valero, a member of chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s economic advisory council, warned the plans would be “bad for the UK”.

She described the watering down of green policies as “yet another example of policy volatility that prevents businesses taking the long term investment decisions needed for a stronger, more resilient and sustainable economy”.

And former Aston Martin boss Dr Andy Palmer told The Independent abandoning the 2030 ban would be a “significant step back for the UK's global leadership in fighting climate change and the transition to a net-zero economy”.

He said the decision would send a message to the world that “the UK is willing to compromise its climate commitments in favour of short-term political gain”.

Dr Palmer, who now runs electric car charging firm Pod Point, said companies have invested heavily in Britain “specifically because of the 2030 deadline”. He added: “These companies will understandably feel cheated by this sudden change in direction,” he said.

And, in a stinging attack on Mr Sunak and his predecessors, Dr Palmer said there has been “a deep erosion of trust” between business and the government in recent years.

“Brexit, a revolving door for prime ministers, no long-term industrial strategy - all of these components have accumulated to give investors and businesses reason to reconsider whether the UK is a place that is truly open for business - especially as the economy changes to focus on greener technologies,” he said.

Home secretary Suella Braverman (PA Wire)

In an apparent attack on home secretary Suella Braverman, who justified watering down environmental commitments by saying the government will not “save the planet by bankrupting the British people”.

And Labour took advantage of the rift between Mr Sunak and business to accuse the PM of “weak leadership” - although the party has so far refused to keep the 2030 ban if it wins the next election.

Shadow Treasury secretary Darren Jones said: “We’re going to need to talk to the car companies, who will be as surprised about these announcements as we are.”

He told Sky News: “This is a classic example of Rishi Sunak’s weak leadership. Ministers didn’t seem to know, we've just seen... the home secretary didn’t know the details. This is a chaotic approach to running the country, it’s completely unacceptable and it's harming the economy.”

The interventions came as industry body the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders warned Mr Sunak’s plans were “a concern”.

Chief executive Mike Hawes said the industry has invested billions of pounds in electric vehicles, batteries and other technologies - with the support of the government. “So we are questioning… what what is the strategy here?” he told the BBC. “And we do not know quite what is going to happen now,” he said.

Think tank the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) blasted Mr Sunak over the plans, which come just months after ministers invested a reported £500m in a new electric battery gigafactory being built in the UK by Jaguar Land Rover.

Associate director Luke Murphy said: “What is the point of investing half a billion pounds of public money in an electric battery factory only to abandon the petrol and diesel phase out?”

He added that the race to net zero is “the economic opportunity of the 21st century” and said “investors need stability and certainty”. “While other countries race ahead, the UK is going into reverse gear,” he added.

The boss of energy firm E.ON Chris Norbury said “there is no ‘green vs cheap’ debate”. “It’s a false argument that only serves to delay the vital work of transforming our economy,” Chris Norbury said.

Charge UK, the industry body for electric vehicle charging companies, said Mr Sunak’s plans were “extremely worrying” and “not consistent with economic stability or confidence”.

The lobby group said members have committed £6bn to support the rollout of electric car infrastructure in Britain, building charging points at an “unprecedented rate”.

“This has been made possible by a clear commitment from the UK government to decarbonise our economy, with the 2030 phase out date for new petrol and diesel vehicles acting as an essential catalyst,” it said.

Charge UK warned any rowing back on the 2030 ban would “compromise the entire industry, and place jobs and consumer and investor confidence at risk”.

But the New Conservatives group – which includes right-wingers elected since the Brexit referendum – said water-down plans was a “common-sense approach”.

In a letter to Mr Sunak, co-chairs Miriam Cates and Danny Kruger said that electric vehicles are attractive to “better off” people and that “many of those who backed our party in 2019 are not in that situation”.

Ian Plummer, commercial director at online car seller Auto Trader, said any delay to the 2030 diesel and petrol ban would be “a hugely retrograde step” and put “politics ahead of net zero goals”.

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