It looks like a compromise with the unions is available but it’s not clear the government wants to take it. Meanwhile The Minister for the Winter of Discontent is on manoeuvres – and the soldiers are preparing for action this Christmas
It’s difficult to put your finger on Oliver Dowden’s charm. He doesn’t have the convincing military bearing of a Penny Mordaunt or the “do I look bothered?” insouciance of a David Cameron or the weird magnetism of a Michael Gove. If you were going to pick a Minister to put up against a million furious public service workers who haven’t had a pay rise in twelve years we suspect Dowden wouldn’t be your first choice.
On Laura Kuenssberg’s Sunday morning programme the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster didn’t offer any immediate explanation for how he got the job but we do know he’s a close friend of Rishi Sunak and has a reputation as a diligent ‘fixer’. “I have to say we will be resolute in response to this…” he said, resolutely.
Of course, Dowden won’t be fixing policy himself or negotiating with the unions directly. His job is to provide some kind of contingency response to the strikes – we understand he chaired another COBRA meeting this morning, his third. So far 1,200 troops have been assigned to cover for ambulance drivers and border guards over Christmas, although it looks like this was arranged before Dowden became involved. The Minister’s response to the emergency mostly involves showing up in TV studios on time.
Dowden’s main point in the Kuenssberg interview (and in others over the weekend) – that the government cannot move on wages because it must honour the independent pay review bodies’ various proposals – fell apart immediately. We know that the government regularly ignores statutory pay reviews. We can’t think of a good reason to make an exception of the nurses or the school teachers.
And, it turns out, the independent pay review bodies are not all that independent. They’re issued with detailed instructions by ministers for each annual pay round. The Health Secretary’s latest instructions to the NHS body are pretty clear, for instance: “it is particularly important that you also have regard to the government’s inflation target when forming recommendations.” On LBC Nick Ferrari was gobsmacked to learn that the members of the ‘independent’ pay review bodies are actually appointed by the Prime Minister or by the relevant Secretary of State.
More to the point, the government can and does impose hard limits on the pay increases that may be proposed. The current Conservative government did exactly this, in fact, in 2011 and 2012, as part of the austerity regime. This explains why real pay in the public services hasn’t risen since before the financial crisis.
In the interview Dowden also said that nurses on the lowest grades have been offered a 9.3% rise. It’s actually 5.5%. Other ministers and backbenchers have been using the bigger number too – it actually applies to non-nursing grades. It must be in some kind of briefing pack they’ve been given.
Meanwhile, Conservative backbenchers have noticed that the government seems to be painting itself into a corner on public service pay. Unions have been telegraphing for weeks that their members would probably accept offers somewhere between the current low-ball proposals and their published demands (in Scotland union members are already voting on offers). Jake Berry, like Oliver Dowden a former Chairman of the Party, says the government will have to “improve its offer“. It looks like there’s a political win on the table for the Tories – an affordable offer that acknowledges a decade of real-terms pay cuts and increasing hardship and lifts the threat of a new Winter of Discontent. Is Rishi a mature enough leader to take the opportunity? Does his fixer have the courage to tell him to?