November 6, 2023 - 3:40pm

Tomorrow’s King’s Speech is likely the last chance the Tories will have to place items on the legislative agenda before the next election. With no more than 14 months left before going to the electorate, few parts of the speech are going to have the parliamentary time to make it to the statute books, but the Government still has the opportunity tomorrow to frame the run-up to the next election. One nod to this is a slew of proposed legislation around Net Zero. 

A flagship policy around the environment has been trailed in leaks ahead of the big speech, concerning the awarding of oil exploration licences for the North Sea. Under the new law, licences would have to be offered each year, rather than at the discretion of the current government. This would prevent any new Labour ministry from kicking licensing into the long grass, and undermine a planned push towards renewables. 

It’s a smart use of legislation to bind an opponent. More than that, however, it’s a signal that the Tories want to take the fight around the environment to the next election. After Uxbridge and Ulez, they see a chance to scupper Labour by focusing on the costs of environmentalism and painting the Opposition as in hock to provocateurs like Just Stop Oil

This makes sense in the current electoral climate, but it is a tricky line for the Conservatives to manage. Most polling shows overwhelming support for Net Zero as a concept — there is no great reserve of climate scepticism among British voters. Environmentalism is largely a default view, especially among some of the better-off wavering voters the Tories might fear losing to the Lib Dems. The flipside of this is a reticence around specific policies

Voters are sceptical of some of the measures posited for achieving Net Zero. Ulez has shown this, as well as the now-constant freeze on fuel duty. Voters are wary about the proposed ban on petrol and diesel car sales, the move towards heat pumps and other green initiatives that seem costly and restrictive. There is some leverage here for the Tories. 

It will, however, be a hard battle for them to win, as the cost-of-living crisis has already tarnished their ability to talk about defending people from energy prices. Indeed, the party’s declining reputation makes it hard for it to say anything that people will listen to. Equally, there’s a chance the Conservatives tie themselves in knots — Net Zero was made law by Theresa May, and exuberantly endorsed by Boris Johnson. There are many environmentalists in the party who may challenge Number 10’s message on this. 

Making a success of the issue will need deft political management, something which seems in short supply in the current Tory Party. There’s every possibility it could be an effective wedge between people’s professed desires around the environment and the policies required — but also every chance it could unravel, alienating moderate voters, causing nasty spats within the party and failing to land a blow on Labour. 

Perhaps the best the Tories can hope for is using this as red meat to shore up the base. Fighting over Net Zero is unlikely to win over moderates but may pull out some of the voters in suburban seats the Tories need to avoid a defeat becoming a rout. The party should be wary, though: in Australia it was climate policy that helped secure a drubbing for the centre-right. 

Really, the biggest concern for this administration, with what is very likely to be its last King’s Speech, is whether anything can be done to arrest its decline. A year isn’t much time to pass legislation or to achieve policy goals, but it’s more than enough time for a government to unravel.

John Oxley is a corporate strategist and political commentator. His Substack is Joxley Writes.