Where is Boris Johnson’s pay policy?

Boris Johnson has responded to the biggest rail strikes in a generation with plans to break the industrial action by allowing firms to bring in agency staff. Credit: PA

As Boris Johnson tries to limit pay rises the government controls to 3%, to bring down inflation, ministers have no explanation for why planned rises in the state pension, in universal credit and benefits, which will automatically rise in line with inflation - so by circa 10% - would be less inflationary than (say) increasing teachers’ and nurses’ pay by 6% (which is double what they expect to be offered and would still be a real pay cut).

This is not to argue it would be wrong to protect the poorest through the standard indexation of pensions and benefits.

But it is to say that Mr Johnson’s pay policy is confusing. He cannot pretend there is no pay policy.

Even refusing to engage directly in pay talks with rail workers - despite owning the network and funding services - is a policy.

His mantra is that incomes have to be suppressed to bring down inflation. So the question he needs to answer is why he thinks some income rises are toxic and inflationary and others are benign and acceptable. This isn’t just an economic question.

For his party, it is also the difference between political life and death.

A swing Tory voter who - for example - earns a few pounds more than would make them eligible for universal credit, and will therefore see their living standards savaged, will think twice before rewarding Mr Johnson at the ballot box. There are two other points.

The government is the biggest and most powerful employer in the country. There can be no pretence any serious element of market forces come to play when it sets pay for the military, or nurses, or civil servants and the rest, whatever the conceit of its pay review bodies that when they recommend pay rises they take a holistic view of economic conditions and public sector resources.

The over-riding consideration - in Mr Johnson’s own words - is that inflation must be crushed by bearing down on pay rises.

But why is it fair that public servants should take the strain in bearing down on inflation, when pay rises in the economy as a whole are currently averaging 6.8% (according to official figures)?

Apart from anything else, the public sector employs just 17% of all workers in the UK, so squeezing their pay alone won’t eliminate core inflation. The second point is this.

Trade unions are much less powerful than they were in the 1970s and even less powerful than they were a few years ago - because in 2016 David Cameron as the then prime minister made it much harder for teachers, nurses, rail workers and other important public service workers to go on strike.

On Mr Cameron’s orders, the threshold for a successful strike vote was changed such that at least half of eligible union members had to vote and four fifths of that 50% had to be in favour of the vote.

This was thought to be a high bar, given normal apathy among union members. It was an attempt by a Tory PM to make sure that no strike could be called except when there was a legitimate grievance.

The thresholds were beaten by a country mile in the RMT strike ballot.

Yet the rhetoric of Mr Johnson and his ministers is that rail workers can’t possibly have a fair claim and they are simply holding the country to ransom.

This may be effective short term politics, though opinion polls show voters are fairly evenly divided on whether they support or oppose the strikers.

But the risk for the government is that he is encouraging workers to become more militant, not less - because if workers are denigrated as vandals even when they vote in overwhelming numbers to strike - what is in it for them to be more constructive in negotiations and less aggressive?

Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To Know