This isn’t the year for you if you are an election-phobe. More than half of the world’s population, some four billion people, are participating in elections in 40 countries this year with the US, Russia, India, the European Parliament, the UK, South Africa and a host of others going to the polls. The results will determine geopolitical trends including the vexed China question, the Russia-Ukraine war and the Israel-Hamas war, but this vast test of public opinion seems increasingly alien from the battle of ideas and will only pay lip service to the real global issues of economic growth, climate change, regional disparity, and human rights.
From a domestic perspective, many of us subscribe to the view that government has become centred around managing the UK’s decline, and even with a tax-cutting budget scheduled for 6 March, the Conservative campaign risks going down a dismal and depressing rabbit hole with talk of ‘stopping the boats’, Rwanda and the anti-woke agenda.
Sunak’s prospects seem unremittingly grim, whether the anticipated poll is in May, or more likely November and it is difficult to see the Conservatives achieve cut through. On the contrary, since the Conservative’s won in 2010 some 75% of people say the country is either much worse (41%) or somewhat worse (34%). The end of a 13-year era beckons.
So, what can be done to capture public attention in the short period ahead and arrest the seemingly inevitable decline of Tory support? An answer – perhaps not the answer – can be found amid the macro global issues set out earlier. Of course, the public’s top priorities going into an election year are the typical core concerns of the NHS and economy/cost-of-living, but at the same time climate change has the capacity to become a dominant issue come the election campaign. Cynical gesture politics or not, these are desperate times for Tory election strategists.
According to opinion polls nearly half the population think climate one of the most important issues facing the country and some 41% of Britons say they’d be more likely to vote for a party that said it would take strong action against things that cause climate change, even if this increases costs of oil and gas production and requires increased investment in renewable energy supplies. Perhaps an injection of the green agenda is what the Tories require? The Conservatives even have David Cameron back who could invite Rishi Sunak on a retread-tour of the Artic complete with Dave’s infamous huskies.
Alternatively, Sunak may make climate change a defining negative of his campaign, questioning why Britain should invest in expensive climate action at a time of economic restraint. Climate, according to this strategy, becomes a polarising, almost wedge issue which may encourage Tories, particularly so called ‘red wall’ Tories, to the polls. It certainly has consistency on its side. Sunak has already gained a reputation for watering down the commitments of his predecessor as prime minister and environmentalists are despairing that he has failed over the past 18 months to appoint a new chair of the independent committee that advises ministers on emissions targets. In the past year alone, he has tabled licences for new oil and gas drilling in the UK, a 2030 ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars has been delayed by five years, the 2035 phaseout of gas boiler sales has been loosened and landlords will not be obliged to insulate their rental properties to higher standards. The rush to net zero at the expense of the economy is a threat to global security, say advocates of this view, like Jacob Rees Mogg – an erstwhile cabinet colleague.
Sunak will also take note of Trump. Leading the opinion polls, his claims that climate change is “mythical”, “non-existent”, or “an expensive hoax” appear to have done his candidature no harm. Whichever of these options the Conservative leader goes for, history may damn him as a weak leader, pulled in every opportunistic direction becoming incoherent, and ultimately irrelevant.
One key date for Sunak though, is November 11-22 when Cop29 meets in, er, oil-rich Azerbaijan. Mukhtar Babayev, Azerbaijan’s minister of ecology and natural resources, will be COP29 President, as well as Yalchin Rafiyev, Azerbaijan’s chief negotiator. The cast list also features Simon Stiell, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change as well as Wope Hoekstra, a former Shell employee who is the EU’s climate action commissioner. Cop29 seized by the pro-fossil lobby? Surely not.
With high stakes and a volatile electorate, the debate as to whether climate change is weaponised in a positive or negative sense is featuring high on political strategists’ minds. Entering 2024, the risk is that the climate will become a political football in the US, the UK and even more broadly. Once again, in election-heaven, the big global issues are clouded.