Rishi Sunak has reversed his decision to skip the Cop27 climate summit in Egypt next week, bowing to pressure from activists, his own environment adviser and Boris Johnson.
The Prime Minister accepted there is “no long-term prosperity without action on climate change” as he confirmed he will attend the UN talks in Sharm El Sheikh that start on Sunday.
Mr Sunak had been declining to go, arguing that he needed to focus on the “depressing domestic challenges” as he worked on the autumn Budget with Chancellor Jeremy Hunt.
Downing Street said he changed his mind after making “good progress” ahead of the financial statement, but Labour accused the Prime Minister of having been “dragged kicking and screaming into doing the right thing”.
Cop26 president Alok Sharma, who will be handing over the UK’s presidency to Egypt at the summit, said he is “delighted” about the U-turn, having previously expressed his disappointment.
Lord Deben, the chairman of the UK’s independent Climate Change Committee, also said he is “pleased” Mr Sunak will be attending the summit.
But he warned the UK’s delivery on climate change has been “appalling”.
Mr Sunak announced his attendance the morning after Mr Johnson, one of his predecessors in No 10 and an enduring rival in the Conservative Party, confirmed he will be joining the talks in Egypt.
“There is no long-term prosperity without action on climate change,” Mr Sunak tweeted.
“There is no energy security without investing in renewables.
“That is why I will attend @COP27P next week: to deliver on Glasgow’s legacy of building a secure and sustainable future.”
Mr Johnson chose not to publicly criticise Mr Sunak’s initial refusal to attend, but said in an interview broadcast on Tuesday evening that he will be attending to discuss “how we see things in the UK” given he has a “particular interest”.
“I was invited by the Egyptians so I’m very happy to go,” he told Sky News.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman insisted it was good progress on the November 17 autumn Budget that changed Mr Sunak’s mind on attendance.
“We wanted to make sure we were making good progress on the Government’s domestic agenda and the Autumn Statement in particular,” the spokesman said.
“Following discussions with the Chancellor this week, he has now agreed to attend. The Prime Minister feels there is sufficient space to make this trip.”
Mr Sharma, who presided over Cop26 in Glasgow last year, welcomed Mr Sunak’s reversal, saying he “completely” agrees with his comments that climate action is required to secure long-term prosperity.
Deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner said the U-turn was “embarrassing”, arguing that Mr Sunak had to be “dragged kicking and screaming into doing the right thing”.
It was only on Friday that Mr Sunak was arguing to broadcasters that he was “focusing on the depressing domestic challenges we have with the economy” as he sought to justify not attending.
“I think that’s what people watching would reasonably expect me to be doing as well,” he said.
Shadow climate secretary Ed Miliband said Mr Sunak had agreed to go “to avoid embarrassment not to provide leadership” and seized on his change in language, saying: “The guy is a phoney.”
“The Prime Minister has been shamed into going to Cop27 by the torrent of disbelief that he would fail to turn up,” Mr Miliband added.
“Yet again we see a Prime Minister who only makes decisions for reasons of political management not the national interest.”
The key day for world leaders is Monday, when high-level talks are scheduled, and US President Joe Biden is expected to attend.
Green MP Caroline Lucas tweeted: “Glad to see Sunak’s screeching U-turn on #COP27, but what an embarrassing mis-step on the world stage. Let this be a lesson to him – climate leadership matters.”
Friends of the Earth international climate campaigner Rachel Kennerley welcomed Mr Sunak having “seen sense and decided to attend” and urged him to “rebuild” the UK’s climate reputation.
Despite No 10’s U-turn, the King is still not planning to attend Cop27.
A Buckingham Palace spokesman said there is “unanimous agreement” with the Government that it is not right for Charles, a long-standing environmental campaigner, to go.
In Egypt, Mr Sunak will hope to make progress on the commitment to halt deforestation by 2030 and to agree new partnerships on clean and renewable energy, Downing Street said.
Mr Sunak’s spokesman said he would not “pre-empt” conversations when asked if he will raise the imprisonment of British-Egyptian pro-democracy activist Alaa Abdel-Fattah, who is on hunger strike.
“We are working hard to secure Alaa Abdel-Fattah’s release. We are raising his case at the highest levels of the Egyptian government,” the spokesman said.
Amnesty International UK chief executive Sacha Deshmukh said Mr Sunak must impress on Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi the activist’s “life now hangs in the balance”.
“We and Alaa’s family want to see the Prime Minister coming back from Egypt with an agreed date for Alaa’s urgent release and a firm commitment that he be allowed to safely leave the country,” he added.
The PM’s spokesman was not aware of the Prime Minister and Mr Johnson “doing anything jointly together” on the climate, nor does it seem likely that Mr Sunak could offer his former Downing Street neighbour a lift to Egypt to reduce their carbon footprint.
“That’s the very definition of a hypothetical question,” the spokesman said.