Some may recall the genial sketch in The Fast Show, in which people are sitting around a dinner party or a cocktail bar holding a deeply pretentious conversation about some pseudo-intellectual matter. One of them then intervenes to say something trivial or fatuous. The others fall silent, and the embarrassed offender removes himself with the immortal line: “I’ll get my coat.”
I have had the same sensation lately, when trivially and fatuously (or so it seems to others) offering the view that Labour might not win the next election outright. My interlocutors, scarred by the Conservative party’s annus horribilis in 2022 and incapable of believing it could win anything except a booby prize, fall silent with disbelief. It being summer, I get my proverbial coat. I know it’s a rash thing to say – Sir Keir Starmer is ahead in the personal polls (and these things matter now we live in a quasi-presidential system), his party leads in the opinion polls, and the Conservatives have been crushed in two by-elections. The Government has recovered some public respect – it would have been hard for it to do anything else – but most people feel it is out of touch with the electorate, especially with the squeeze on real incomes caused by high inflation, itself a product of rash public spending decisions taken during the pandemic. It is, indeed, hard to believe the Tories can be anything other than thrashed when the election, expected in just over a year’s time, finally comes.
My own view is nuanced. I suspect we’ll have a Labour government (though that is not certain), but perhaps without an overall majority. It will be helped by tactical voting, which greatly assisted the two Tory by-election defeats. However, boundary changes greatly favour the Conservatives, ensuring that the additional 120 or so seats Labour must win for an overall majority become that much harder to secure. And there are other reasons Labour will struggle. Starmer is not Tony Blair. He harbours some fairly unimpressive people in his team, and on his backbenches are many who supported Jeremy Corbyn and still regret his departure. The hope Labour is pinning on picking up many seats in Scotland because of the travails and possible criminality of the SNP may be overstated given the intensely tribal nature of the SNP’s vote. And Labour seems to have a job devising any compelling policies, and those produced so far literally don’t add up. Take its crackpot idea to impose VAT on school fees. All that’s likely to result in is the collapse of the state system in certain areas from the influx of tens of thousands of pupils whose parents cannot afford a 20 per cent rise in fees. As a result, the move will raise hardly any money at all, and may well have a net cost.
The electric car has become the symbol of a lack of strategic planning
But the real portent of doom came for Labour in the Uxbridge by-election. It is unequivocally accepted in the party that its candidate lost an entirely winnable seat because of the determination of Sadiq Khan, the Labour Mayor of London, to impose an ultra-low emissions zone in the whole of Greater London, including Uxbridge. This will mean that people with cars of a certain age – cars of the sort driven by the less well-off, and often essential to their earning a living and to the welfare of their families – can only enter the zone by paying a charge of £12.50 a day. Some more intelligent and engaged Labour politicians – notably Wes Streeting, whose eventual leadership of the party seems inevitable – have argued that at a time of hardship this impost is simply unacceptable. After the party’s defeat in Uxbridge a battle broke out in the Labour party, with Khan coming under severe pressure to change his mind on expanding ULEZ. At the time of writing he hasn’t done so; it is far from certain he will hold that line.
It is beyond question that, largely due to the result of internal combustion engines, the air quality in London and other urban areas ranges from unsavoury to positively toxic, and it’s perfectly rational to do something about it. It is also beyond question that the world is becoming hotter – this June and July were the two hottest months on record globally. The panic on that front was whipped up this summer by parts of Greece and the wider Mediterranean going up in flames, although the hysteria eased when it became clear that the wildfires were mostly the acts of arsonists rather than spontaneous conflagration. Sensible nations are doing what they can to reduce carbon emissions. However, some of the things Britain and other western countries propose come under the category of frightening the horses; they might have to be subject to a more gradualist approach.
Even if Starmer doesn’t squash Khan’s expanded ULEZ zone the electorate may well do so. He has to stand for re-election next May and his Conservative opponent, Susan Hall, has said she will scrap the new zone on her first day as mayor. She would instead look at areas of particularly bad air quality and take special measures there, rather than punish areas where the air quality isn’t a problem. Were Mr Khan to be defeated, or to win by a whisker, the panic in Labour about environmental policies, which is already acute, could well become hysterical.
But the Tories also have their problems. Their present policy of net zero by 2050 was thought largely to have been dictated by the present Mrs Boris Johnson during her husband’s chaotic administration. It took little account of economic reality, nor of the requirements an advanced economy has for energy if it is to avoid further hardships. Even before the pandemic brought its upheavals and caused much of the present economic misery, the Tories – in power either alone or as the major political force since 2010 – had failed to develop a nuclear power strategy of the sort essential to a thriving western economy. Now, the government notionally has a plan to electrify a nation that can’t produce enough electricity to fulfil the policy: a work of genius, is it not?
The electric car has become the symbol of this lack of strategic planning. Everywhere one reads articles or finds celebrities complaining about how useless these cars are. The promised extension of the range of these vehicles on a single charge hasn’t happened, and is slow in coming. Those in London wishing to drive to Cornwall, Scotland or the continent find such cars impossible for the task, with advertised ranges of 250 miles turning out to be only 200 miles if they’re lucky. On the other hand, a modern diesel engine in a large car often has a range of 800 miles, and no lengthy delays for re-charging. Then there’s the issue of the ecology of parts of the third world being wrecked by the mining of lithium and other precious metals for these batteries. And there is the prospect that if the sale of new petrol and diesel cars were stopped in 2030 as touted, there won’t be enough electricity being produced to charge all the vehicles needing it. And I should add that electric vehicles can be substantially heavier than similarly sized combustion vehicles, meaning that many multi-storey car parks and some old bridges might have to be reinforced to make them safe to bear the extra weight.
The Conservative party is now making a serious U-turn on environmental policy. There was previously the sense that they hoped it would be a Labour government to bear the embarrassment of prolonging diesel and petrol cars, but now that might become part of a Tory election-saving strategy. Rishi Sunak has already declared his pro-car credentials, not to mention the intention to “max-out” the UK’s oil and gas reserves in the North Sea. Similarly, the high cost and inefficiency of heat pumps will come under scrutiny, especially as so many core Tory voters live in rural areas off the gas grid, sometimes in listed buildings that these pumps might badly disfigure. Uxbridge gave the Tories, even more than Labour, a wakeup call on public opinion. Voters there don’t necessarily oppose environmental measures, but they don’t want them forced down their throats until the economy and the technology have improved. Who best gives voice to these concerns will gain a serious advantage next year. Let’s not get our coats just yet.
Simon Heffer is a historian, columnist for the Telegraph and Professorial Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham