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14 December 2022

PMQs: Sunak cornered on all sides over NHS strikes

Keir Starmer accused the PM of having “curled up in a ball and gone into hibernation” as a winter crisis approaches.

By Rachel Wearmouth

The final PMQs of 2022 was a grumpy, if rather predictable affair, with all three opposition parties turning up the heat on Rishi Sunak over strikes and the state of the NHS.

Keir Starmer was determined to pin blame for tomorrow’s nurses’ walkout on the Prime Minister, calling the industrial action a “badge of shame” for the government. Ministers have refused to bypass the independent pay review board and open negotiations with the Royal College of Nursing, despite its general secretary Pat Cullen vowing to pause the first nurses’ strike in history if they did so.

It is a difficult spot for the PM, not least because the Scottish government has stepped in to offer health workers an average increase of 7.5 per cent, taking the threat of a strike off the table for at least two unions – something the new SNP Westminster leader Stephen Flynn was only too happy to remind Sunak of.

Sunak attempted to defend the government’s record, saying nurses in England got a 3 per cent rise last year during a wider public sector pay freeze. But Starmer further turned the screw by pointing out pay rises could be funded by scrapping non-dom tax status – something Sunak’s billionaire wife previously held – and underlining the recent King’s Fund report, which found that shrivelled NHS capacity was down to a “decade of neglect” and managed decline overseen by successive Tory governments.

Both leaders tried to paint the other as weak, with Starmer accusing Sunak of having “curled up in a ball and gone into hibernation” as a winter crisis approaches for the NHS. Sunak, meanwhile, claimed his opposite calling for negotiations was a “political formula” for avoiding taking a strong position. The Lib Dem leader Ed Davey followed Flynn in scrutinising Sunak over the health service, this time over the NHS’s “dreadful” cancer backlog, which, he claimed, is seeing 40 per cent of cancer patients with a two-month wait for treatment.

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The session felt like a glimpse of Sunak’s future: the thankless job of leading a government that is coming to the end of its long reign, cornered on all sides.

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[See also: Is Mick Lynch in trouble?]