Irony dies as Tories accuse Labour of using the NHS as a political football | John Crace

Crisis? What crisis? Inflation running at 12%. The economy heading for recession. The UK ranked 38 out of 38 in the most recent OECD forecasts. Now that’s what I call world-beating. The Conservatives’ poll ratings tanking by the hour. Half the country voting for industrial action. It’s harder to find someone not planning to go on strike these days.

So you’d have thought the government would be willing to go that extra mile. To actually have a face-to-face meeting with the unions in an effort to keep public services and infrastructure running. To stop the entropy at the heart of Westminster. But no. Ministers would rather stare helplessly into the headlights. Unable to read the runes.

Thing is, the pandemic has changed the country. We’ve got used to things not working properly. Used to being left to fend for ourselves. Used to getting on with life and working from home. So the idea of the trains, the NHS and who knows what else not working no longer scares. Don’t get me wrong. We’d rather they were working. But we’re no longer unsympathetic to strikers.

We’ve learned to see more clearly. Things were falling apart before strike action was announced. And we’ve had enough of 12 years of austerity. The Tories have had more than long enough to fix the economy and all they’ve done is make things worse. People are sick and tired of being promised a pay rise at some unspecified point in the future – mañana, mañana – when the reality is they’ve been taking a real-terms pay cut for years. Finally, enough is enough.

Weirdly, though, members of the government remain the only people in the country not to be able to see this. So as Christmas approaches with the threat of widespread industrial action, ministers stay chained to their desks, unwilling to go that extra mile, and actually meet anyone from the unions. It’s almost as if ministers sense their own weakness. That if they discussed pay with the Royal College of Nursing they would be unable to resist their demands. That they would roll over within five minutes and agree to a 19% pay rise the union never for a moment thought would be offered.

So it was no wonder that Labour forced an urgent question in the Commons on Monday to find out if the government had an action plan. Beyond doing nothing. Just a day ago, the shadow health secretary, Wes Streeting, had been the darling of the Sunday Telegraph in an apparent declaration of war on the unions, saying the NHS had to change or die.

That apostasy lasted less than 24 hours. Wes has had time to think and repent – we all make errors – and was now championing the RCN, Unison and the BMA. Why wouldn’t the health secretary just meet the unions to discuss pay? That’s all that they were asking to stop the strikes. Hell, they had never really wanted to strike in the first place. They just weren’t those kind of people.

The junior health minister Will Quince began by explaining why he wasn’t his boss. Steve Barclay would have loved to have been in the Commons. Was totally gutted to be tied up in a Cobra meeting. He sent his love to everyone. BIG LOVE. With hugs. But we were where we were and the prime minister would never have forgiven him if he had spent some time talking about preventing strikes rather than planning for the logistics of bringing in the army.

So it was Quince who acted the fall guy. It was like this. The government had acted totally in good faith. No one loved the NHS more than him. He paused to kiss his NHS badge. No one had clapped louder for doctors and nurses during the pandemic than him. But the pay review board had reported back that nurses were only worth a pay rise of between 4% and 5% so his hands were tied. And the pay review board were the Ten Commandments. Could we just pray for patient safety instead?

Streeting was understandably incredulous. Er … the pay review was just a consultative body. The government was totally free to ignore what it said and offer more if it felt it was appropriate. So why not at least meet up and hear what the RCN had to say. Who knew? Maybe the union might turn out to be rather more reasonable than ministers. What was there to lose? The NHS was on its knees anyway after more than a decade of Tory mismanagement.

Maybe Quince might like to ask himself why the RCN had voted for strike action for the first time in its 100-year history? Quince wouldn’t. He didn’t want to think about anything. Certainly not about anything above his pay grade. Which is almost everything. He is allowed to choose his tie though. So he just repeated that there could be no talks with the union as everything that had needed to be said had already been said. And careless talks cost lives. Except here it was the absence of talks that would cost lives.

The SNP’s Steven Bonnar pointed out that Nicola Sturgeon had avoided a strike in Scotland by getting stuck in and offering 7.5%. Quince was horrified. Hanging on in quiet desperation was the English way. We could never be seen to be offering our nurses that much money. Far better for them to get used to eating from food banks. Or food pantries as the Tories now like to call them. So much more genteel.

Other Conservative MPs chipped in to accuse doctors and nurses of being far too greedy. Richard Drax thought it outrageous Labour was using the NHS as a political football. Surely it was time to privatise it. Irony just died. The session ended in confusion as someone announced Barclay would now be talking to the RCN. He just wouldn’t be talking about pay. Perhaps they could discuss instead whether Gareth Southgate should stay on as England manager.

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