The only course left for Sunak's friendless government is to settle these strikes now | Polly Toynbee

The Tories have even lost the support of their cheerleaders in the rightwing press. But can they bear to back down?

Week one was a win for the nurses. The government banked on public anger when they walked out, but instead public support rose. It must rattle No 10 when even the Express splashes front pages backing the nurses day after day: “Give nurses a deal and stop this madness,” screamed one. “For nurses, for Britain, sit down and sort this out,” another. Today, the paper quoted a poll showing that 68% of the public support their strike.

According to another new poll, 50% of voters want the government to negotiate with all of the public sector to pay them more, with just 23% backing implacability. Destined to climb down, the government would be wise to do it right now, as every week of escalating strikes exposes the inadequacy of Rishi Sunak’s response and brings more calls from Tory MPs for settlement.

Yet ministers stay “resolute” in TV studios, armed only with phoney “facts”. Oliver Dowden repeated to the BBC the untruth that paying out would cost £28bn, or £1,000 for every household. He knows the BBC’s Reality Check debunked it. Ben Zaranko of the Institute for Fiscal Studies tells me the total would be £13bn once taxes are recouped – or less, as that assumes every public servant receives a 10% rise, which few union negotiators expect: Scottish nurses, for example, are settling for 7.5%.

The leader of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), Pat Cullen, always said she would “press pause” for pay talks. Never having been on strike before, the RCN may have misstepped in calling for inflation plus 5%, while other unions more cannily gave no opening bid. That allows ministers to keep saying of the nurses’ claim, “19% is unaffordable”. But Cullen has always said the money was on the table, if the health minister, Steve Barclay, would talk pay. But he won’t.

Odd briefings said Barclay was writing to the RCN, but bizarrely it has heard not a word all week from the government. Some joked that maybe the letter was stuck in the postal strike. Then came briefings to the media that a one-off lump sum might be offered. Still no word to the RCN. Unions don’t like unconsolidated bungs that reset the next pay round back to the beginning, but the RCN said of course it would discuss it: “It depends how lumpy the lump is, doesn’t it?” I was told. But even the lump vanished, banned by No 10. Looking at the alarming risks of Wednesday’s ambulance strikes, Barclay claims, “my No 1 priority is to keep patients safe”, though plainly resisting a pay rise ranks just a little higher.

The drum roll of other strikes grows louder. But as Unison’s leader, Christina McAnea, told the BBC’s Today programme, the government is “completely intransigent” on pay. Time is not on Sunak’s side: the longer this lasts, the more the injustice of Britain’s pay permeates through to the public. The Sunday Times – usually trenchantly right wing – states baldly, “NHS staff need to be paid more – particularly nurses who bear much of the emotional and physical strain of frontline work, yet have seen their real-terms pay fall by 20% over the last decade.”

The health minister, Steve Barclay, was challenged by Sarah Pinnington-Auld on his visit to King’s College University hospital, London, on Monday.
The health minister, Steve Barclay, was challenged by Sarah Pinnington-Auld on his visit to King’s College University hospital, London, on Monday. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA

Pay review bodies no longer work as camouflage, as people see it’s the government that decides pay. Lump sum, pay rise or reopening pay review decisions: any extra pay is either squeezed from impossible departmental cuts, or the Treasury coughs up, which in this case it refuses to do.

The government will lose this battle because it is so profoundly in the wrong and the public knows it. When the chief of the defence staff’s protest that the “forces are not spare capacity” to fill in for strikers is blazoned on the Telegraph front page, the government’s stand looks pretty friendless. It’s no use Sunak writing in the Sun on Sunday trying to label strikers are “foot soldiers” in a “class war”. His threats of new anti-strike laws risk bringing the unions public sympathy. There will be plenty more indignant ordinary people, such as the mother of a sick young child who challenged Barclay on Monday. Expect him to shy away from too many more hospital photo-ops.

Unions have been calmly settling with private employers in a labour market short of people, from Rolls-Royce and Airbus to Liverpool docks, alongside hundreds more. The private sector has had a 7% raise up to November this year, while the public sector had below 3%: that shocking difference, says the ONS, is among “the largest we have seen”. But take this back to 2010 and that gap yawns far wider: Zaranko of the IFS tells me the private sector has seen a 5.5% rise in those 12 years, while the public sector suffered a 5.9% fall. If unions took no action, they might as well shut up shop. That gap is impossible to defend – and every broadcast interviewer should ask every minister how they can justify it.

Other numbers undermine the government’s broken defences. How about 20% more British billionaires since the start of Covid? Or the billions lost on bad Covid contracts? Or Brexit losing £120bn in GDP and costing the Treasury £50bn in tax? Among other measures, including equalising tax rates on earned and unearned income, £37bn could be raised on wealth taxes. The LSE Wealth Tax Commission says 2% annual tax on wealth over £5m raises £18bn. There is money – a lot of money – to pay public servants who have been short-changed and to rebalance decades of money taken from earnings.

There is no solid ground upon which the government can plant its flag in this combat against public servants. Tomorrow, Sunak has his first grilling from the liaison committee of all the Commons select committee chairs, including Steve Brine, Tory chair of the health and social care committee. He has called for Sunak to settle these strikes, saying, “It seems to me there is no end game, no exit strategy.” The committee will want to extract from Sunak some plan, some way out, beyond a war of attrition for which he will deserve the blame. Does he have any idea how to end this epic roll call of strikes that need never have happened, had he been wiser? When every rational analysis proves the strikers justified, trying to grind them down is a losing tactic when he has lost the argument. Negotiate now and it could all be over by Christmas, or else the NHS is set for a Narnia of never-ending winter. Yet on the eve of Tuesday’s second nurses’ strike, the RCN says no one from the government has contacted them for more than a week.

  • Polly Toynbee is a Guardian columnist


Polly Toynbee

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