Thursday, June 20, 2024

Rishi Sunak promises to protect the environment as PM as new cabinet takes shape

New Prime Minister promises to place Conservative 2019 manifesto at heart of his administration as Grant Shapps replaces Jacob Rees-Mogg at BEIS

Rishi Sunak has touted environmental protection and the Conservative Party’s 2019 manifesto commitments as key lodestars for his Prime Ministership as he officially entered Downing Street this afternoon and began shaping his new cabinet team.

Grant Shapps has been appointed Business Secretary, giving him a crucial role overseeing the UK’s net zero agenda and contending with the energy crisis, while Jacob Rees-Mogg and Environment Secretary Ranil Jayawardena have both resigned from the government.

Thérèse Coffey, meanwhile, has been appointed Environment Secretary, giving her key influence over post-Brexit farming subsidy changes and environmental protection regulations that conservation groups had feared were under threat under Jayawardena. Coffey previously as waste and recycling minister at Defra when Theresa May was Prime Minister.

Alok Sharma, meanwhile, will stay on as COP26 President for the final few weeks before Egypt takes over the presidency at COP27 next month, although he will no longer attend cabinet, Downing Street confirmed this afternoon.

Having officially been anointed PM by King Charles earlier, Sunak made his first speech outside his new Number 10 home this afternoon, during which he warned of “difficult decisions” ahead but promised to ensure “integrity, professionalism, and accountability at every level of government”.

The former Chancellor once again warned the UK faced “a profound economic crisis”, citing lingering challenges from the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic and Russia’s war in Ukraine, while also admitting that “some mistakes were made” in recent weeks under his Downing Street predecessor Liz Truss.

But while describing Truss’s push for economic growth as “a noble aim”, he said he had been crowned Prime Minister “in part to fix” the mistakes made in recent weeks, which saw inflationary rises, a drop in the value of the pound, and investors losing confidence in the UK.

“I will place economic stability and confidence at the heart of this government’s agenda,” Sunak said. “This will mean difficult decisions to come.”

With worsening economic outlook for the UK and the government under pressure to balance the books after last month’s disastrous mini-Budget – which saw a flurry of tax cuts announced alongside an increase in spending to support homes and businesses facing soaring energy bills – the prospect of cuts to government spending has prompted fears that net zero programmes could end up on the chopping board.

Sunak stressed that his government would “not leave the next generation – your children and grandchildren – with a debt to settle that we were too weak to pay ourselves”.

But he also touted the Conservative’s 2019 election-winning manifesto as core to the government’s mandate – a manifesto that, among other policies, promises to improve the state of the environment, ban fracking, and deliver on the UK’s statutory net zero emissions targets.

“The heart of our mandate is our manifesto,” said Sunak. “I will deliver on its promise: a stronger NHS, better schools, safer streets, control of our borders, protecting our environment supporting our armed forces, levelling-up, and building an economy that embraces the opportunities of Brexit where businesses invest, innovate and create jobs.”

Having been named as the successor to Truss yesterday after his leadership rivals Boris Johnson and Penny Mordaunt both pulled out of the running, Sunak now has a huge job on his hands to unite the country, stabilise the economy, boost investor confidence and contend with the interconnected cost of living, energy and climate crises over the coming weeks and months.

Earlier, Truss delivered her final speech as PM before leaving Downing Street after just 44 days in office, during which she offered no apology or admission of mistakes, as she continued to press the importance of driving economic growth to solve the UK’s economic woes.

Green businesses are sure to agree on the need for economic growth, and will now be hoping Sunak and his soon-to-be-appointed cabinet team to ensure that accelerating the UK’s net zero agenda and enhancing biodiversity are at the forefront of any plans to spur growth and investment.

Sam Hall, director of the Conservative Environment Network (CEN) – a Parliamentary caucus of more than 100 Tory MPs – today urged Sunak to “end the uncertainty about the direction of the government’s environmental policy and recommit to ambitious action on climate change and nature loss”.

“We welcome his pledge to deliver on the 2019 manifesto, which promised the most ambitious environmental programme of any country on Earth,” said Hall. “Protecting our environment doesn’t mean sacrificing economic growth. Green measures can reduce the cost of living, create employment, investment and export opportunities, and safeguard our natural capital, which is the bedrock of our long-term prosperity and security.”

It comes as Sunak begins the task of appointing a new cabinet, as Whitehall contends with the prospect of yet another set of new faces to oversee crucial UK environmental, energy and climate policy.

It has already been confirmed that Jeremy Hunt will stay on as Chancellor, giving him a crucial role in delivering the upcoming Budget, deciding on potential spending cuts, and potentially revamping the tax regime as the Treasury seeks to allay market fears and stave off a looming recession. Hunt was first appointed to the role just 10 days ago by Truss after Kwasi Kwarteng’s sacking.

Alok Sharma will no longer attend cabinet, Downing Street has confirmed, but he will retain his role as COP26 President for the final few weeks as the UK gears up to hand over the reins of overseeing global UN climate negotiations to Egypt when COP27 gets underway in Sharm El Sheikh next month.

Meanwhile, Jacob-Rees Moggs has resigned as Business Secretary, with former Transport Secretary and staunch net zero-advocate Grant Shapps having been confirmed as his successor at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) under Sunak.

As Transport Secretary under Boris Johnson’s Prime Ministership, Shapps developed the government’s Transport Decarbonisation Pan, which set out ambitions for a phase out of fossil fuel cars from 2030, a net zero rail network by 2050, and net zero domestic aviation by 2040.

Green businesses will therefore be hoping he applies similar green ambitions to his role as Business Secretary, following a tumultuous few weeks under Truss which saw the government lift the ban on fracking and tout plans to hand out new oil and gas drilling licenses for the North Sea.

At the Conservative Party conference last month, Shapps emphasised the dangers of relying on risky, volatile and expensive fossil fuels such as gas, as he called for a greater push towards cleaner, more efficient and homegrown energy sources.

“If there’s one thing for certain we cannot carry on relying on, as the world has done so many times, on hydrocarbons,” he said. “Only to find out now that we are reliant on a single country to supply so much of Europe’s – though notably not ours – oil, but notably with a massive impact on our economy and all the living standards that come from that.”

During Sunak’s unsuccessful Conservative leadership bid over the summer, he had touted plans to split BEIS into separate business and energy departments – although it now remains unclear whether he plans to follow through on the commitment given more pressing challenges now exist for the government.

Far from the least of these challenges include beefing-up the government’s Net Zero Strategy, which was declared unlawful by the High Court earlier this year. Just yesterday, government data confirmed the UK remains far off track for its carbon budgets in the mid-2030s, underscoring the urgent need for more detailed policy, investment and strategies to drive forward the net zero agenda.

Meanwhile, with Jayawardena gone at Defra – following a controversy-ridden few weeks in the role that saw conservation groups accuse the government of an “attack on nature”, and fears that green farming subsidy reforms could be ditched – Thérèse Coffey has been named as his replacement.

As Environment Secretary, she will face a major challenge to reassure green groups who were angered by policy changes touted under Jayawardena, while also keeping the farming sector onside amid wholesale changes to the agricultural subsidy regime that had been planned in the wake of Brexit.

Elsewhere, Simon Clarke has resigned from the government, leaving a vacancy as Levelling-Up Secretary which reports have indicated could be filled yet again by Michael Gove, just three months after he was sacked in the role by Boris Johnson.

The cabinet reshuffle is expected to continue late into the evening, with further junior ministerial appointments then expected in the coming days. But, at the time of writing, Suella Braverman had been confirmed to return to the head up the Home Office just days after resigning from the role over a breach of the ministerial code, while James Cleverley is also set to stay on as Foreign Secretary.

Commenting on Shapps appointment to BEIS, Sophie Powell – chief of UK advocacy and policy and Christian Aid – said the role was “a huge responsibility”.

“After the inept and unpopular attempts by previous BEIS Secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg and Liz Truss to bring fracking to the UK, advance oil drilling in the North Sea and possibly water down the UK’s net zero plans, the new administration should do the opposite,” she said. “It must take steps to rapidly accelerate decarbonisation and move us away from catastrophic fossil fuels.”

“Overseeing energy and climate policy has major international ramifications,” she added. “If the UK wants to retain its claim to be a climate leader on the global stage it needs to ensure it helps those on the front line of the climate crisis who are having to deal with the devastating consequences of emissions burned in rich countries like the UK.”