It has begun. Yesterday, Captain Dowden marched into the COBRA situation room – for there is a situation
As we reported last week the PM has put Oliver Dowden in charge of his Winter of Discontent Task Force. Dowden assembled his first responders in the Cabinet Office Briefing Rooms to begin the fightback against the wretched nurses and posties. The committee will meet once more this week.
Sounds like there wasn’t much to discuss. Dowden doesn’t have many options: how to deploy a maximum of 2,000 troops available to him and whether civil servants and agency workers might be persuaded to break strikes. Well over a million workers will strike or are balloting to strike in December and January – rail workers, ambulance drivers, Eurostar crews, bus drivers, highways workers, baggage handlers, postal workers, nurses, driving examiners and civil servants – so the government’s emergency measures will be mainly symbolic.
We know that 600 military drivers have been asked to “familiarise themselves with vehicles” so they can drive ambulances for the 21 and 28 December strikes. 10,000 drivers will be on strike on those days and they have promised to continue to provide emergency cover so it’s not clear how much the troops will be able to help – probably mostly photo opportunities. Dowden’s press team has been sending out robust quotes, of course. He’s ‘straining every sinew’ apparently (in Scotland there’ll be no strike because nurses have accepted an average 7.5% pay increase).
We’re in the phase of the crisis when Ministers stamp their feet and talk tough. On the BBC’s Today programme this morning, Transport Minister Mark Harper insisted that rail workers must accept what he euphemistically calls ‘reform’ while also insisting that the negotiations are nothing to do with him, guv. Justin Webb tried to get Harper to confirm a Financial Times story that he’s been blocking a deal that was acceptable to the unions. The Minister flannelled manfully but essentially accepted the assertion (and used the word ‘reform’ 15 times as he did so). ‘Reform’ is a persistent theme across all the current disputes, of course – the Uberisation of postal services that Simon Thompson proposes, the privatisation of NHS services that Sunak and other Ministers continue to advocate. Pay and conditions are not the only things on the table this Winter.
Meanwhile, it might – or it might not – reassure you to know that, in his Cabinet Office role, Oliver Dowden is also responsible for the government’s wider resilience planning – you know, plagues, energy crises, Winter weather. He answers questions in Parliament on the subject and says things like: “The national resilience framework will be the first iteration of our new strategic approach. It will strengthen the systems, structures and capabilities that underpin the UK’s resilience to all risks.” The new framework was actually first announced back in August by the previous incumbent Kit Malthouse. It’s difficult to know how much confidence to invest in a new ‘resilience framework’ from the people who brought you over 200,000 Covid deaths, a near-death bond market crisis, Michelle Mone and an epidemic of child poverty. Perhaps we should wait and see.
- A 15-minute profile of Oliver Dowden from BBC Radio 4.