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Cameron Smith: Conservatives mustn't fall for Starmer's oil and gas trap

Cameron Smith, CEN's Head of Communications

Sir Keir Starmer is attempting to lay an electoral trap for the government by pledging to end new oil and gas. He hopes to entice Conservatives to defend fossil fuels instead of championing their renewables record, painting the party as unambitious on climate change.

Undoubtedly, oil and gas must decline sharply for climate and economic reasons, but we need a fair transition, not a cliff edge.

As we use less fossil fuels to heat our homes and power our cars, production should reduce in lockstep. This will prevent us from becoming more dependent on imports while enabling us to meet important climate change commitments.

Before we can turn the taps off, we need to have significantly scaled-up clean energy, securing our energy supply and the economic future of North Sea workers. The vast majority of people understand this.

But here is the trap. If the Conservatives relentlessly defend ongoing oil and gas exploration, they'll talk more about expensive fossil fuels than cheap, popular renewables.

Already, 35 per cent of the country thinks the government puts too much emphasis on fossil fuels. A YouGov poll also shows that a plurality of people - including Conservative voters - support a new oil and gas ban.

This should worry the Prime Minister as, overwhelmingly, the public blame oil and gas for the energy crisis and understand that wind and solar power, alongside home insulation, are the answer to driving inflation and bills down.

Instead, the Conservatives must focus on their renewables record and ensure that any new oil and gas projects align with the UK's climate goals. We will need some oil and gas, albeit increasingly less, as we reach net zero. But building more cheap renewables will do more for our energy security.

Thanks to Conservative policies, renewables generate over 40 per cent of our electricity today, compared to just 7 per cent in 2010. They've also plummeted in price with new wind and solar projects cutting bills and shielding families from Putin's energy warfare.

This is a record worth championing, with over two-thirds of Conservative voters proud of the UK's environmental leadership. Even more, some 76 per cent think the UK should try as hard as possible to lead the world in tackling climate change, winning new industries and jobs.

Undoubtedly the Conservatives stand to gain politically from Labour's links to Just Stop Oil. However, they shouldn’t become the defenders of oil and gas. As Reform UK has shown, there is no benefit from campaigning against climate action.

If Rishi Sunak campaigns on the Conservatives' green record and builds on it, he can deny the Labour Party the climate boost they hope for at the next election.

He has a real opportunity to seize the initiative and demonstrate that the Conservatives can be trusted on climate change with a deliverable and responsible plan, especially after Labour embarrassingly delayed its £28 billion a year climate spending promise. Should Starmer water down his oil and gas pledge next following opposition by trade unions and anger from Scottish Labour supporters, this opportunity only grows. But to grasp it, Sunak must take bold action. Unblocking English onshore wind, reforming planning rules to speed up the deployment of more renewables, and offering tax breaks for clean technologies would show the party's continuing ambition.

It will also help keep the UK competitive in response to the USA's Inflation Reduction Act, winning green investment and accelerating net zero.

Campaigning as a green conservative is the best path to victory in 2024. To do so, Sunak must be careful not to position the Conservatives as the defenders of oil and gas but as the leaders of an ambitious net zero transition, which unites the country and maximises the economic benefits.


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