What is Sunak’s strikes strategy?

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is facing down a winter of discontent. Credit: PA

I've been trying to discern a strategy in the government's approach to this winter of industrial action by public sector and public service workers.

Having spoken to assorted ministers and officials, this is the best I can come up with.The nutshell is this.

1. The government has run out of money, even after putting up taxes by £25bn (their figures, not mine);

2. If they pay all public sector and public service workers more, that fuels inflation, which means both less resource for the public sector next year and a prolonged living standards squeeze;

3. There can't be special cases, or exceptions, because any pay rise above the current 4/5% becomes the benchmark for all pay rises - hence the government's support for the offer from train operating companies of 4% for two years, even though it was inevitable they would react by announcing more strikes over Christmas.

That is the logic of a government position which means massive additional stress on hospitals, border security and the railways before Christmas, and the prospect of further strikes by teachers, and other public sector workers early in the new year.

The economics of the argument is not ridiculous, though with private sector employers routinely offering bigger rises than the government is doing, it is moot whether it is appropriate for nurses and teachers to pay the significant personal price in the war against inflation.

There are also two other reasons why the unhappiness of public sector workers is understandable.

First, both schools and hospitals are suffering from chronic staff shortages, which is linked to more than a decade of the pay of essential workers being eroded in real or inflation-adjusted terms.

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That's damaging the provision of healthcare and education.

Second, the last PM but one (remember him, the blond man), who was in office as recently as September, encouraged an expectation among public service workers that the pay drought was over, that austerity was a word and a policy consigned to the dustbin of history - so there is pain and anger that savage pay austerity is back, with a change of PM, but no electoral renewal of the government's mandate.

The slightly depressing conclusion is that what we are witnessing is something that is not a million miles from a general strike, because the interests of millions of public sector and public service workers (including those of Royal Mail) are aligned against a government which believes that it will be an economic disaster - and a deferred political one - to award a near inflation rise to any group as an exception.

The appointment of Oliver Dowden - the minister closest to Sunak - as de facto strikes minister is testament to the government's resolve not to blink in this winter of discontent. The army is set to be deployed to protect patients and borders.

The law may well be changed to limit how strikes, especially in the railways, can impair services.

This is a defining set of events both for trade unions and for how posterity will judge the new prime minster's term in office.

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