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Sunak signals he could attend UN climate summit

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Rishi Sunak has opened the door to a possible U-turn over his decision not to attend next month’s UN COP27 climate change summit after growing criticism from Tory MPs.

Sunak’s allies said on Sunday the prime minister’s priority “first and foremost has to be focusing on domestic issues” but they left open the possibility that he might fit in the summit in Egypt that starts on November 6.

“Going depends on progress,” said one, adding that Sunak’s diary was currently focused on dealing with the economic crisis and the government’s autumn statement due on November 17.

Last week Downing Street said Sunak would not attend the COP27 summit in Sharm el-Sheikh because of “pressing domestic commitments”. Joe Biden, US president, and the French leader Emmanuel Macron are among those who will attend.

The prime minister’s initial decision not to attend the UN conference added to the row over UK representation. King Charles has been advised by Downing Street not to attend the event.

Downing Street’s acknowledgment on Sunday that Sunak might find time to go to the COP27 summit came after Alok Sharma, the government’s climate czar, criticized the prime minister’s priorities.

Sunak removed Sharma from the cabinet last week, and the climate envoy lost his status as a minister.

Sharma, president of the COP26 summit in Glasgow last year, said Sunak’s expected non-attendance at the follow-up meeting in Egypt was “disappointing” and could damage Tory prospects at the next election.

“I’m pretty disappointed that the prime minister is not going,” Sharma told the Sunday Times.

“I understand that he’s got a huge in-tray of domestic issues that has to be dealt with. But I would say that going to COP27 would allow for engagement with other world leaders. And I think it does send a signal — if the prime minister was to go — about our renewed commitment to the issue.”

Sharma, who will hand over the COP presidency from the UK to Egypt at the summit, said one reason Australian conservatives did not win this year’s election was “because people didn’t feel they took this issue seriously enough”.

Tensions over Sunak’s stance on the COP27 summit could rise further if Boris Johnson, former prime minister, decides to attend the conference. Johnson played a key role in raising the profile of the COP26 event in Glasgow.

Johnson’s spokesman declined to deny a report in the Observer newspaper that the former prime minister was considering going to the event.

Former cabinet minister Nadine Dorries said on Twitter: “The prime minister is WRONG not to go to COP. Global warming is the biggest crisis facing our planet.”

Anthony Browne, another Tory MP, said on Sunday Sunak was “wrong” not to authorize the King’s attendance at the summit.

He tweeted: “The King has been leading world opinion on climate change, and his presence will help ensure a successful summit. It is essential that the UK retains its international leadership on reaching net zero.”

However some Conservative MPs have praised Sunak for having the correct priorities — they said the prime minister should focus on the Autumn Statement.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, former business secretary, tweeted last week: “The cost of living won’t be solved in Sharm el-Sheikh where each hotel room for the conference is £2,000 a night.”

The climate issue resonates particularly strongly with younger voters, a demographic with whom the Conservatives have struggled to connect for many years.

Leveling up secretary Michael Gove told the BBC the government had a good record on working towards a net zero carbon target by 2050. “Even more important than who goes is what we do,” he said.

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