According to The Spectator, Rishi Sunak was hoping to use his time on the backbenches to earn a place in the Kirby Sigston cricket team in his constituency. This would hardly be a surprise to ConservativeHome readers. Andrew Gimson has long since revealed that Sunak’s entire political career has been an effort to make up for not reaching Winchester’s First XI. It also of great use to us hacks, if we can work out which player to whom Sunak can be compared. Being able to say Theresa May resembled Geoffrey Boycott or Boris Johnson mirrored the man he made Lord Botham was a blessing when devising analogies.
For my money, Sunak is Michael Atherton, the doughty former English skipper turned commentator extraordinaire. That is not just because he has seemed destined for the top job from an early age, but because, like Atherton did with opening the batting, he makes politics seem like trench warfare. Or at least he does so with those enthusiasts for immiseration and irritation that I do the kindness of only referring to as the strikers.
As I have written here before, labelling our current bout of unrest as a second ‘Winter of Discontent’ is misguided. We may be facing our largest series of strikes since the late 1980s, but we are still far short of the 29 million or so days lost to industrial action in 1979. Compared to then, only half as many workers are unionised, and the role of the Government as the employer involved is smaller.
Nevertheless, that does not mean squaring off with the nurses, railwaymen, and co does not pose a headache for Sunak. With gilt yields rising, any £18 billion pay hike is more than the public finances could withhold. Moreover, Number 10 will be acutely conscious that public opinion is against them. Sunak may have enjoyed a personal honeymoon on becoming Prime Minister but squaring off against our sainted nurses has brought those halcyon days to a swift and painful end.
According to a recent Ipsos survey, a majority of the public support striking nurses. Over 40 per cent also back action by firefighters, teachers, and postal workers. Evidence from YouGov also suggests 30 per cent or more of the public blame the Government for strike action by firefighters, teachers, civil servants, and border force staff, with that rising to 54 per cent and 56 per cent for ambulance drivers and nurses respectively.
Many Tories might get misty-eyed and nostalgic at the thought of preparing for battle with the enemy within, but it butters few parsnips with the average voter. Hence why it appears the Health Secretary has started to go wobbly. That Barclay would wish to cut a deal is unsurprising if he faces a few more months of being harangued for the cameras by so-called peoples’ champions. At least none have yet asked him if he has had to clear up his own mother’s you-know-what, Thick of It style.
But before the Health Secretary browbeats the Prime Minister into capitulating to the placard-wielding patient-betrayers on the picket line, I would suggest there is cause for tentative optimism about the Government’s current approach. Whisper it, but for all the squeals of anguish from those on strike and their media partisans, a path to victory via Sunak’s intransigence is slowly becoming discernible.
This is for three reasons. Firstly, like the Triple Entente starving the Kaiser out during the First World War, the Government should hope that the longer the strikes go on, the more public opinion will swing their way. This can be illustrated by reference to our old friends Mick Lynch and his not-so-merry men.
Following railway strikes in the summer, the percentage of those thinking trade unions play a negative role in Britain surged by more than 10 per cent, and support for further strikes fell. More of those surveyed now blame the railwaymen for the strikes than the Government. Unsurprisingly, with twice as many of those polled now having a negative view of Lynch as a positive one, the RMT is scrambling to make a deal.
What Sunak may hope is that this suggests that even if voters have initial sympathy for the strikers, they will become weary of continued action if it becomes clear the Government will not be moved. As patients go untreated and parcels remain undelivered, the public should expect trade unions to recognise their position is hopeless.
The caveat to this, as James Frayne has regularly told us, is that far more voters take the car than the train to work, so their exhaustion with the railwaymen might just be an understandable desperation not to see Lynch’s snarling visage on our television screens any longer. This principle may not apply to the nurses, post office workers, et al. But as there are no atheists in a foxhole, it might only take a few cancelled operations and undelivered Christmas cards to turn public opinion.
The second reason is that the Government will be conscious that the unions are not one cohesive entity. We are far from a general strike. Although the Government is not the direct employer of many of those currently striking, it is aware that it cannot hide behind faceless pay boards. But there is, at least, some distance between ministers and the disputes.
Public support varies so much between unions – barristers, for example, have half the support of nurses – that the Government can aim to pick off different unions at different points. It was far easier for Brandon Lewis to settle early with the barristers than it would be for Barclay to surrender to the nurses, for example. Doing so allows the Government to keep the situation under control, the exact opposite of Jim Callaghan’s predicament in 1979.
Finally, Sunak will be hoping that if he can make it through this winter without being forced to make major concessions, an improving economic picture will make it easier to strike a deal around the time of the next Budget in early March. If inflation continues easing and the economy continues to outperform gloomier expectations, Hunt’s fiscal leeway will expand, and the pressure for big pay rises will decline. Negotiating from a position of strength with unions that have failed to force earlier clime-downs will allow the Government to present its largesse as a consequence of its responsibility.
Unlikely? Perhaps. But Sunak has a far greater chance of winning his stand off with the strikers than he does of opening the batting for Kirby Sigston any time soon.