Trailing Labour by over 20 points in the polls, Rishi Sunak’s Conservatives are desperately looking for wedge issues to gain ground on the opposition ahead of a General Election next year.

From immigration and the Rwanda deal to HS2, rights to protest and the ‘war on woke’, the Party is looking for grounds to differentiate itself from Keir Starmer’s centrist positioning.

One such effort, which increasingly seems to be dominating the Party’s strategy, is to tap into perceived questions around climate change and net zero.

Following the Conservative’s narrow win in Uxbridge and South Ruislip (which, it’s important to note, was really more about air quality than net zero), the Prime Minister announced a softened approach on net zero measures, rolling back targets on diesel cars, boilers and home energy efficiency for landlords. Since then, Ministers have decried a so-called meat tax, a proposal for seven household bins, ‘sinister’ 15 minute cities and councils controlling when you go to the shops.

To reaffirm this new direction, the Government placed a new Bill to allow annual oil and gas licences at the top of the King’s Speech – despite the King being an outspoken environmentalist.

With little seeming to shift the polls in recent months, it is understandable that the Tories are looking for clear dividing lines, but is going after climate change and net zero a good choice as a centrepiece wedge issue?

In the context of the opposition, it certainly sets them apart with Labour, who have championed the benefits of green transition as part of their mission to Make Britain a Clean Energy Superpower, plan to spend £28bn a year as part of the Green Prosperity Plan (although not immediately), and have promised to end new licences in the North Sea. 

However, what about voters? As John Burn-Murdoch notes in the Financial Times, for a wedge issue to work, voters must 1: see the issue as one of the most important facing the country and 2: believe the Party driving the wedge has the solution. 

Let’s put Sunak’s net zero shift to the test. To answer this, I will be using polling from Onward’s ‘Hotting Up’ report.

1: Salience

Climate change is consistently listed as one of the top issues facing the country in public opinion. In polling for Onward by Public First, 23% of the public listed the ‘threat of climate change’ in their top three issues, ahead of levels of crime, level of taxation and availability of housing.

It is also important to consider the salience of the cost of net zero. The same polling set shows that 53% of the public are willing to accept an increase in living costs to tackle climate change, while 40% are not. Interestingly, the public is more willing to accept costs to tackle climate change than it is to improve the education system, build more houses or create secure jobs.

Even though voters are cautious about the costs of specific policies, it is comparable to other areas of policy and they are generally supportive of action even if they believe the Government should play more of a role in giving financial support for the transition.

Evidently, tackling climate change has high salience and – even if there is a reasonable degree of caution and frustration over specific policies, which could be remedied by the right Government support – it is not comparable to successful wedge issue of recent years such as immigration and Brexit.

2: The Party needs to have the solution

This is a difficult question to answer because net zero transition requires action across the whole economy and will take place over decades. It is not comparable to, for example, which Party voters trust to tackle small boats or reduce immigration.

However, we can look at support for policies which the Conservatives have introduced and/or watered down:

These results suggest that recent policy moves, and some of the rhetoric which has yet to turn into policy, such as a ban on low-traffic neighbourhoods, are popular with the public. And while the two headline-grabbing changes from Sunak’s net zero shift, on gas boilers and diesel vehicles, are only slightly unfavourable with Conservative voters – far less than you would expect from a successful wedge issue.

Sunak’s net zero shift, then, does not have the hallmarks of a successful wedge issue.

Tackling climate change is salient, the costs of transition are comparable to policy on education, and the policies the Government is moving away from are popular with the public and only slightly unfavourable with Conservative voters.