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25/11/2022. Darlington, United Kingdom. The Prime Minister Rishi Sunak meets staff and patients at Clifton Court Medical Practice in Darlington during a working visit to the Darlington Economic Campus. Picture by Simon Walker / No 10 Downing Street
Whatever happens, Sunak will pay a heavy price for the strikes

Whatever happens, Sunak will pay a heavy price for the strikes

25/11/2022. Darlington, United Kingdom. The Prime Minister Rishi Sunak meets staff and patients at Clifton Court Medical Practice in Darlington during a working visit to the Darlington Economic Campus. Picture by Simon Walker / No 10 Downing Street

When governments fall into decay and decline, they are invariably blamed for industrial action and disruption – and this prime minister is doing nothing to make that less likely

In his famous 1936 essay, The Crack-Up, F Scott Fitzgerald wrote that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” According to which test – and unfortunately for Rishi Sunak – most voters are highly intelligent and functioning well.

Which is to say: as the imminent wave of strikes takes its toll in the weeks ahead, the public may indeed curse union leaders and their members for wrecking their Christmas, and for making pay demands well above inflation at a time when all are feeling the pinch of the cost-of-living crisis and bracing themselves for tax rises. 

Yet – simultaneously, and no less vociferously – they will almost certainly curse the Prime Minister, too, for failing to handle the disruption and to save the festive season. The voters are perfectly capable of concluding that it’s all the strikers’ fault; and that it’s all the government’s fault, too.   

Tomorrow, some 40,000 members of the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union who work for Network Rail and 14 train operators will commence a 48-hour stoppage. Simultaneously, the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union, which represents civil servants and private sector workers on government contracts, will launch a month-long series of actions affecting a wide range of public agencies – from passport control at airports and frontline traffic officers to job centres and the courts.

On Thursday, the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) will stage the first national strike in its 106-year history – a second day of action being pencilled in for 20 December. These prospective walk-outs, above all, are robbing ministers of sleep. In the words of one Cabinet member: “Rail workers in hi-vis jackets are not seen as superheroes, and I’ve yet to meet a constituent who spoke fondly about border officials. But nurses? Christ, none of us want to be seen as the bad guys in a stand-off with them”.

Today, Oliver Dowden, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, will chair a meeting of Cobra to discuss contingency plans for the operational trials that threaten to capsize Sunak’s first Christmas in Number Ten. Pounding on the PM’s door, too, is General Winter; already bringing parts of the UK to a standstill, as the Met Office sheepishly admits that there has been “a bit more snow than we were originally thinking”. 

To adapt Sun Tzu, all strikes and industrial conflicts are won and lost before they are fought. In February 1981, Margaret Thatcher was forced into a humiliating climbdown by the National Union of Mineworkers, ditching plans to close 23 pits in order to avert industrial action. 

Infuriated to have been thus outmanoeuvred, she and three successive energy secretaries – David Howell, Nigel Lawson and Peter Walker – systematically stockpiled coal and made provision for its transport to power stations by mobile police units in preparation for the next NUM strike – which Arthur Scargill duly launched in March 1984.

The Thatcher government was helped enormously by Scargill’s divisiveness, which meant that many collieries, especially in Nottinghamshire, stayed open; and by revelations that the NUM had taken money from both Libya and the Soviet Union. But the miners lost – ending the strike in March 1985 – because they had gravely underestimated the extent to which the government was properly prepared for the long haul.

In contrast, failure to foresee the danger of the fuel protest and the blockade of refineries in 2000 was one of Tony Blair’s greatest errors – as he admits in his memoirs. “The trouble is at the time when I had to know this [the vulnerability of the refineries], I didn’t. And neither, it seems, did anyone else in a position of authority… I knew I had messed up big time. My antennae should have been twitching.”

William Hague’s Conservatives pulled ahead briefly in the polls. In the end, a combination of robust police action, the involvement of the military and some astute PR caused the protest to fizzle out. But it had been a political memento mori for the New Labour prime minister, only three years into his first term.

It is very far from clear that Sunak is ready for what is about to hit him. Yes, he last month established a dedicated unit, headed by Dowden, to coordinate civil contingencies strategy during the stoppages. And yes, he has already tasked 750 members of the armed forces to step in when ambulance workers strike on 21 December, and an additional 650 military personnel to assist Border Force at the worst-affected airports. But NHS bosses, in particular, are seriously concerned that these measures will barely scratch the surface.

Nor have Sunak’s political instincts served him well as he has sought to frame the confrontation. First (and ironically for a Brexiteer), he has made the classic error of the Remain campaign which is to reduce the argument to numbers. “What I’m not going to do,” he said on Friday, “is ask ordinary families up and down the country to pay an extra £1,000 a year to meet the pay demands of the union bosses.” 

Fact-checkers have tried and failed to make sense of this particular fiscal claim. Worse, however, is the PM’s cloth-eared assumption that brandishing a scary statistic will persuade the public that he is their true representative in the battle with unreasonable union barons. As they look ahead to the next few weeks, the voters are not thinking about numbers. They are thinking about a potentially ruined Christmas; and a winter in which it is impossible to travel and possibly dangerous to get ill.

“When it is crisis time,” writes Blair of the task he faced during the fuel rebellion, “forget delegation. That’s the moment you’re there for: grip it, shape it, decide it and solve it.” Again, however, Sunak has – at least so far – done no such thing in this very pointed test of his authority.

So far, indeed, he and his colleagues have been conspicuously outplayed by their opponents. In a statement in yesterday’s Observer, Pat Cullen, general secretary of the RCN, said she was willing to “press pause” on industrial action if Steve Barclay, the Health Secretary, agreed to meet to discuss a settlement, or for the conciliation service ACAS to act as a go-between. In private, the RCN has indicated that it might be willing to drop its demand for a 17 per cent pay rise and consider agreements along the lines of those reached in Scotland – where health workers have been offered between 5 and 11 per cent, according to grade.

Cullen’s offer was politically smart. If the government had responded positively – well, there was at least a possibility that her members might have ended up with a halfway decent pay deal. But she had also set an elephant trap, helpfully signposted in big neon letters: “This is an elephant trap, into which ministers might think twice about leaping.”

And into it yesterday leapt the Foreign Secretary, James Cleverly: living proof that nominative determinism does not always apply. “The point is, meetings are different from pay negotiations,” he told Sky’s Jayne Secker. “Ultimately, independent bodies are there for a reason, to take the politics out of this kind of stuff.”

But everybody involved in the dispute – or indeed minded to use Google – knows that this is both craven and disingenuous. Why? Because HMG’s own guidance is quite explicit: “The government is not bound by review bodies’ recommendations. It is up to the Prime Minister and relevant secretaries of state to decide how to react to this advice.” 

Last Wednesday, TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady and the chair of the union public sector liaison group and general secretary of UNISON, Christina McAnea, wrote to the Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, declaring that “[m]inisters cannot continue to hide behind pay review bodies.” Yesterday, the Foreign Secretary obligingly made their point for them.

Faced with strike action, a Prime Minister may well choose to dig in and talk tough. Presented with the Marxist pantomime villain of Scargill, Thatcher took full advantage of the opportunity and warned of the “enemy within” and the “fascist left”. 

In this respect, Sunak is less fortunate. According to YouGov’s latest polling, 52 per cent support the nurses’ right to strike, up eight points from June. Public opinion is less hospitable to the RMT and the impending rail strikes. But the union’s secretary-general, Mick Lynch, is no Scargill and has proved himself a particularly adept media performer.

Worst of all, in an effort to look tough, Sunak is writing cheques his government cannot cash. On Friday at RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire, posing in front of Typhoon jets to ensure the full Top Gun: Maverick effect, the PM said that “tough new laws” were in active preparation. Two days previously, he had told the Commons that “if the union leaders continue to be unreasonable, then it is my duty to take action to protect the lives and livelihoods of the British public”.

Which sounds very butch. In practice, however, the chances of Sunak rushing through legislation in time to make an impact upon this round of strikes are negligible. And, although there is no formally enshrined right to strike in UK law, unions are fully entitled to take action if they comply with the rules governing the balloting of their members and give their employers due notification, as required by the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992. 

Any no-strike proposals which appeared to contravene Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights, and the rights to freedom of association and assembly, would be fiercely challenged in the courts. In other words: Sunak’s “tough new laws”, if they are ever passed, are the work of years, not weeks.

Strikes are most dangerous to a government when they dramatise a much broader sense of decay, decline and mismanagement. When Edward Heath asked the voters “Who governs?” in February 1974, their answer was: “Not you, mate.” In December 1978, Bernard Donoughue, Jim Callaghan’s head of policy research, observed a “curious feverish madness” gripping government and nation alike in a wave of strikes that would enter the annals of political infamy as the “winter of discontent”.

Sunak and Hunt are clearly an improvement on Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng – but then the same would be true of Dastardly and Muttley.

In his first 48 days, the PM has not stamped his authority upon the government. Nor has he made good upon his promise to restore “integrity, professionalism and accountability” to its operations. 

Almost six months have now elapsed since the resignation on June 15 of Lord Geidt as Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests, and no successor is in sight. Last month, Sir Gavin Willamson was forced to resign from the government over bullying allegations; the Justice Secretary, Dominic Raab, faces a Cabinet Office investigation involving similar accusations; the Tory peer Michelle Mone has taken a leave of absence from the House of Lords amid a serious controversy over PPE contracts.

As in the last days of John Major’s government, allegations of “sleaze” or misconduct stick most dangerously when they act as lurid parables of a much greater perception of decline and of failure by a government to match office with power; to enact its mandate; or – in truth – to serve the public in any meaningful sense. 

It is against this most unpromising of backgrounds that, in the weeks ahead, Sunak faces his most serious test to date – greater even than the Autumn Statement. Fairly or otherwise, I think the public has already decided to blame him for this wave of strikes. At the end of a gruelling political year, his first Christmas stocking as PM turns out to be stuffed with trouble.

Photograph Simon Walker / No 10 Downing Street

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