Back in November, when Downing Street’s pandemic responses looked daily more incompetent, the announcement of a ban on sales of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030, ten years earlier than originally planned, was largely greeted — along with the rest of the ‘Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution’ — as another exercise in Johnsonian distraction and thin-air number-plucking. Auto makers responded defensively, citing the huge costs of re-engineering model ranges in short order and the shameful failure of ministers to encourage investment in plug-in networks for electric vehicles. Meanwhile, Tesla founder Elon Musk announced he would site a battery ‘gigafactory’ in Germany because Brexit made the UK ‘too risky’.
Fast-forward three months and sense the change. The PM looks almost masterly as he rides the vaccine wave, while the auto industry performs competitive pivots to embrace its electric future. Ford will stop making carbon-fuelled cars by 2030; Jaguar Land Rover and Bentley will have fully electric ranges. Nissan is upping its battery production at Sunderland, where its electric Leaf is already made. A start-up called Britishvolt has plans for its own gigafactory at Blyth in Northumberland (Coventry wants one too) and another called Riversimple, backed by Siemens of Germany, aims for mass production of hydrogen-powered cars in Wales.
All this points to a remarkable shift in an industry that just a few months ago looked beleaguered by lockdown, Brexit and legacy technology. Maybe there was some subsidy-seeking gamesmanship afoot as manufacturers played up the difficulties while knowing all along that this was their destiny. But if the PM’s tenure lasts and his luck holds, he’ll be able to say: I told you so, set an impossible challenge — vaccines in nine months, carbonless cars in a decade — and bingo, the private sector will rise to it.
On that basis, let’s not entirely rule out his latest madcap call: to connect Britain to Northern Ireland via a giant tunnel-round-about beneath the Isle of Man.