No one asked Boris Johnson about the looming train and tube strikes at Wednesday’s prime minister’s questions, but he managed to shoehorn the subject in anyway, to have a dig at Keir Starmer.
“Have we heard any condemnation yet from the opposition of the RMT and their reckless and wanton strike?” he asked in response to a question about passport backlogs.
Johnson’s government has attacked the strike plan as “an act of self-harm” and “thoroughly irresponsible” in an effort to stoke anger against the rail unions, and he was clearly hoping to lump Starmer in with the RMT members.
Afterwards, however, Starmer’s spokesperson had no compunction in saying the strikes should not go ahead. “We’ve been clear in the position that the strikes shouldn’t go ahead,” he said. “Nobody wants to see industrial action that is disruptive.”
Starmer has spent much of his leadership distancing himself from his predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn, a staunch supporter of the unions who was frequently seen on picket lines, as was the former shadow chancellor John McDonnell.
By contrast, Starmer’s spokesperson said he supported the general right of workers to withdraw their labour, but believed the rail strikes should not go ahead.
Labour’s tetchy relationship with the Unite leader, Sharon Graham, underlines Starmer’s more cautious approach when it comes to the unions, and contrasts with Corbyn’s close comradeship with Graham’s predecessor, Len McCluskey, and his team.
Nevertheless, the Tories still believe there is political capital to be made from reminding voters about Corbyn: the party co-chair Oliver Dowden told members earlier this year: “The danger has not passed. The Corbynistas are still there.”
When it comes to the train strikes, Labour is seeking to throw the onus back on to the government, calling on ministers to become more directly involved in trying to resolve the standoff between the RMT and rail bosses.
Reports last month suggested Johnson was minded to cut a pay deal with the transport unions worth up to 5%, rather than see the entire network brought to a halt.
But with the Treasury wary of seeming to endorse blockbuster pay deals as the Bank of England governor calls for restraint (despite Johnson’s promise of a “high-wage economy”), ministers have broadly constrained themselves to shouting from the sidelines, while drawing up contingency plans to try to ease the disruption.
The prime minister’s spokesperson said meetings were being convened with freight companies and other key players in an effort to ensure they were prepared.
Plans to impose minimum service standards on transport companies during strikes, promised in the 2019 manifesto, have so far come to nothing, and No 10 acknowledges there is no chance of them being introduced in time to limit this month’s disruption.
By repeatedly castigating the unions, ministers will hope the responsibility for what could in effect be a week-long standstill across much of the railway system will fall on striking train staff.
But with public trust already low, Johnson’s government will fret about the risk of taking some of the blame from frustrated passengers, who are already struggling with the cost of living crisis.