When the Conservatives in the recent Uxbridge and Ruislip by-election, unexpectedly held the seat, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, and his advisors, decided to curry favour with motorists, and latched onto the fact that the Ultra Low Emission Zone or ULEZ extension to all London Boroughs by the Labour Mayor, Sadiq Khan, was unpopular with some voters.
The motorist’s friend
It appears that the PM has decided, on that basis, that downplaying or dumping long-held green policies such as the replacement of gas boilers, boosting wind and solar energy generation, and ending the sale of diesel and petrol cars by 2030, is a vote winner. This is a high risk strategy, as there have been many occasions where leaders in civil and military campaigns misread the runes and took the wrong option, and this may be one such case.
ULEZ is undoubtedly unpopular with the Clarksonian fringe of motoring libertarians, and they are noisy and well connected within the right wing press and media.If we were to follow the advice of the Daily Mail for example, we would not use E graded petrol (E5 and E10 denote the percentage of biofuel methanol in petrol) because of its alleged deleterious effect on ancient petrol engines; we would challenge every parking ticket; applaud the vandals cutting down ULEZ cameras; and only vote for those who advocate more roads and greater priority for cars. Speed cameras, bus lanes, low traffic neighbourhoods, parking charges, electric vehicles, and especially cyclists, are the enemy of the motorists, forgetting that voters can be supportive of all these things and still be car drivers.
Rishi Sunak is not a great communicator, compared to Boris Johnson or even David Cameron. Rishi Sunak has Prime minister approval ratings that are poor, and are not improving. He may be the right stuff for some on the right because of his small government/low tax ethos, but it is not enough – and in any case many of his target voters think the opposite, they want triple lock pensions and an effective NHS, which are all big-ticket items.
Red wall crumbling
The latest red wall voting intention is not looking good either. The conversion of former Labour heartlands to conservatism was a significant factor in the Tory election win of 2019, and now it appears to be fading. The red wall wants more, not less, government expenditure and levelling up, and this spells trouble for Rishi Sunak and his minimalist outlook. It is not helped by his lack of understanding of ordinary concerns about the economy and the future. His every step, from the use of a helicopter to attend visits in the country, his wife’s tax and business affairs, and even his choice of summer holiday, damages his standing with the public, as someone who cannot possibly feel their pain.
His party is also becoming unruly, after a period of quiet discontent within its ranks, but now members of his cabinet such as Suella Braverman are firing off statements on policy without his prior approval. Sunak has therefore sought to break the logjam, by announcing that he is the motorist’s friend.
Proposals to back drivers
In the new long-term plan to back drivers, what is proposed?
- A review of Low Traffic Neighbourhoods, which previous Tory administrations had funded and encouraged. LTNs are being weaponised as some motorists have taken extreme measures to damage bollards and street furniture in a bid to overturn what they see as an infringement on their liberty.
- The BBC reports that a review of 20 mph zones is a possibility, but many conservative supporters and voters are members of speed watch committees that advocate 20 mph zones and speed limits.
- ULEZ of course will get a bashing, but that again may well fade in significance before a general election in 2024 or 2025.
- The lack of answers to impact on the coach and bus industry on both net zero and the completion of bus lanes, as provided for in the bus back better policy of his predecessor-but-one, is worrying the bus industry. Without bus lanes in urban areas, bus reliability, which is a major factor in recruiting new passengers, will not be achieved.
Bus companies disapprove
The Sunak plan for motorists is attacked for its stance on bus priority by a worried bus industry.
This is hardly a plan, as it is more rhetoric than solid proposals. It’s not going to help motorists if councils are yet again hamstrung because of central government meddling with local schemes to cut congestion and improve bus travel.
The credentials of the DfT regarding kindness to motorists are not robust, as it was this government which allowed Highways England (now National Highways) to create the smart motorways project, even when motorists were being killed, and the motoring organisations were pleading for a pause. Eventually the scheme was stopped due to public pressure, but it has left a legacy of sections of motorways with no hard shoulders. There is a pattern forming here of dither, delay, and cancellation by the DfT and it is harming the standing of the government.
The ‘active mobility’ conspiracy
Worryingly, the transport minister gave a speech at the Tory conference, mentioning 15-minute neighbourhoods, in which he appeared to endorse a conspiracy theory which alleges that walking, cycling and using public transport is ‘sinister’, and a means to control a citizen’s freedom of movement. In this narrative, it is as if there is a shadowy organisation pulling the strings in council offices. Sometimes a lie is so outrageous that you wonder how unhinged you have to be to believe it. For a government minister to give any credence to this bunkum is both sad and concerning. Does Mark Harper really believe this will improve the standing of the Conservatives in the country?