Resignation of UK minister underlines divide in Sunak’s Conservative Party

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British international environment minister Zac Goldsmith resigned on Friday, saying Britain had lost its claim to a global leadership role on climate and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was “uninterested” in environmental issues.

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Sunak responded by defending his record and framing the resignation as a consequence of Goldsmith’s reluctance to apologize for remarks criticizing a parliamentary committee over its investigation of former prime minister Boris Johnson.

With an election expected next year and the governing Conservative Party trailing in opinion polls, the row highlights a deep split between those loyal to Sunak and those, like Goldsmith, who think Johnson has been unfairly sidelined.

“The problem is not that the government is hostile to the environment, it is that you, our Prime Minister, are simply uninterested,” said Goldsmith, who sits in parliament’s upper chamber and held the title of Minister of State for Overseas Territories, Commonwealth, Energy, Climate and Environment.

Sunak replied to Goldsmith with a letter that began:

“You were asked to apologize for your comments about the Privileges Committee as we felt they were incompatible with your position as a Minister of the Crown. You have decided to take a different course.”

Some of Johnson’s allies have been increasingly critical of the government since he resigned from parliament earlier this month in protest over a report that found he had deliberately misled lawmakers about COVID-19 lockdown parties.

Goldsmith was on Thursday reprimanded by a parliamentary committee which criticized the behavior of a group of Johnson loyalists for seeking to intimidate the panel that criticized his conduct during lockdown.

Global climate leader

In his resignation letter, Goldsmith said Britain had “visibly stepped off the world stage and withdrawn our leadership on climate and nature.”

That echoed a report published earlier this week by the government’s climate advisers, who said Britain had lost its position as a global leader on climate action and was not doing enough to meet its mid-century net zero target.

The Climate Change Committee report also highlighted a recent decision to commission a new coal mine and support for new British oil and gas production.

Sunak responded to Goldsmith by saying: “We can be proud of the UK’s record as a world leader on net zero. We are going far beyond other countries and delivering tangible progress.”

When Sunak was serving as finance minister, Britain won international plaudits in 2021 for brokering a global climate pact at the COP26 summit in Glasgow. However shortly after becoming prime minister, Sunak said he would not attend the 2022 COP summit, before changing his mind when faced with criticism.

Nevertheless, Sunak has set up a new government department in charge of Britain’s net zero plan and highlighted the importance of growth in green industries to Britain’s economic future.

On Friday, shortly after Goldsmith’s resignation, the government announced a new multi-million-pound fund to create and restore wildlife-rich habitats.

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