A cabinet minister put it to me over the summer that Labour’s position on the rail strikes would make them seem London-centric and out of touch. They genuinely believed they could blame the opposition for the disruption. They pointed to the rise in working from home as the key to breaking the strikes. They said people outside of London drive more, anyway. That looks complacent now.
The Border Force, nurses, paramedics and postal workers have joined the railway strikers. The government is booking taxis to take non-urgent patients to hospital. The military has been drafted in to drive ambulances.
Rishi Sunak said he would introduce anti-strike laws but Mark Harper, the Transport Secretary, admitted last week that the plans wouldn’t become law in time to impact this set of strikes. Ministers are using a line – that pay rises are not decided by them – which doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. There are pay review bodies, but the government is not bound by their decisions.
The problem for the Conservatives is that even if the public loses patience with the strikers, that doesn’t mean they’ll sympathise with the government. The end of the strikes cannot be portrayed as a victory but merely a return to an unpopular status quo. People won’t be grateful for the resumption of a backlog-ridden NHS or dysfunctional train service.
Look beyond the winter and you will see a recession, the lifting of the energy price guarantee and more inflation. The Office for Budget Responsibility predicted that Britain is facing the worst fall in living standards since the 1950s over two years, not just this one winter. The government might hope that lower public sector wages will mean lower inflation, but even if that were the case lower inflation simply means that prices rise less quickly, not that they fall. Many people’s wages will still deteriorate.
Sunak has had an inauspicious start to his time as Prime Minister. He has failed to set out what he hopes to achieve in government beyond mopping up the mess of his predecessor. There hasn’t been a defining speech that justifies his presence. In parliament he is buffeted by his increasingly unruly backbenchers. In the country he is facing a winter of chaos. For Sunak, the question is becoming: all this pain and for what?
This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; subscribe here.
Read more on strikes:
Does the wave of strikes mark the end of the long 1990s?
What are the salaries of workers going on strike in the UK?