Rishi Sunak has dropped a clear hint that he is prepared to row back on some of the government’s key net zero commitments.
The prime minister refused to confirm that the sale of new petrol and diesel cars will be banned from 2030.
And he insisted he would not introduce any policies that led to “more hassle and more costs” in people’s lives.
His apparent shift in tone follows the Tories’ surprise win in last week’s Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election.
The Conservatives clung onto Boris Johnson’s old seat by campaigning against the expansion of London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ), which will see drivers of old cars charged £12.50 a day.
That has led to increased calls from Tory MPs for the PM to ditch policies like the petrol car ban.
Asked directly today if the government was still committed to that policy, Sunak dodged the question.
He said: “Of course net zero is important to me and that’s why, after I became prime minister, earlier this year I set up a brand new government department for energy security and net zero.
“We’re going to keep making progress towards our net zero ambitions and we’re also going to ensure our energy security.”
Sunak added: “I’m standing up for the British people because I’m also cognisant that we’re living through a time at the moment where inflation is high. That’s having an impact on household families’ bills and I don’t want to do anything to add to that, I want to make it easier.
“So yes we are going to make progress towards net zero, but we’re going to do that in a proportionate and pragmatic way that doesn’t unnecessarily give people more hassle and more costs in their life.”
The prime minister’s spokesman insisted the petrol car ban “remains our commitment”.
But he added: “We don’t want to introduce measures that are unfair on the public, particularly at a time of high costs.”
Foreign Office minister Andrew Mitchell also cast doubt on the policy in a car crash radio interview this morning.
He initially refused to guarantee that the petrol car ban would survive, insisting he could not “prophesy for the future”.
But he eventually said it would “remain in place”.
Lib Dem climate change and transport spokesperson Wera Hobhouse said: “This is ridiculous. Car companies need certainty about the rules if they’re to continue championing British manufacturing, but the Conservatives believe in tackling climate change so little they’re willing to undermine British businesses.
“Liberal Democrats support the existing government policy, unlike it seems the government themselves.”