Rishi Sunak is a hyper-aware, even self-conscious prime minister. Since taking submit in October, he has labored assiduously to current a “slick” picture to the media, undertaken a number of U-turns to halt backbench rebellions and tried at each flip to place himself positively in opposition to Labour’s Sir Keir Starmer.
The difficult technocrat in No 10 is obsessive about good press. It’s an strategy that bares stark distinction to the times of Liz Truss, who confirmed little concern for the way her insurance policies is likely to be acquired amid her deeply misguided ideological campaign. Not like his predecessor, subsequently, you possibly can take as a right that when Sunak declares a brand new coverage, there will probably be a hefty quantity of calculated politicking concerned.
On this means, November’s Autumn Assertion was strategically oriented to use conventional Conservative strengths and conventional Labour weaknesses. Sir Keir, ever-keen to current Labour as a accountable occasion after the Cobrynite experiment, was challenged to disagree with Sunak’s proposals. In the long run, Labour’s lack of ability to enroll wholeheartedly to the brand new fiscal orthodoxy uncovered, in chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s evaluation, a deficit of frequent sense in Labour ranks.
In terms of the federal government’s new anti-strike invoice, the political pondering is actually the identical.
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Setting a entice…
The brand new anti-strike laws was launched to the Home on Tuesday by enterprise secretary Grant Shapps. Citing dangers posed to NHS sufferers, Shapps outlined that the brand new invoice would require public sector companies to run minimal ranges of provision on strike days — basically forcing a sure proportion of an business to work or face the sack.
The transfer harks again to a “golden age” of Conservative energy over industrial relations. Ever since Margaret Thatcher defeated the miners and different unions within the Eighties, Conservatives have seen strikes as a strategy to make their occasion look robust and discredit the Labour Occasion alongside the broader left.
To make certain, we’ve already seen Starmer encounter some political problem on this newest wave of commercial motion. In the summertime, he selected to sack one-time frontbencher Sam Tarry for standing alongside picketing employees. For the Labour chief — intent on distancing his occasion from the unions — Tarry had crossed a really literal pink line.
However even when Starmer needs to downplay the connection, there isn’t a escaping the truth that the Labour occasion is related politically and financially with the commerce union motion.
With the brand new anti-strike laws, subsequently, Sunak hopes to implicate Labour in an upsurge of union militancy, thus slowing Starmer’s inexorable march in direction of Downing Road.
It was telling that ministers selected to announce the brand new strike laws inside hours of the Labour chief’s “New 12 months, New Imaginative and prescient” speech final week. Shapps’ pledge stole Starmer’s limelight and Labour’s newly introduced “take again management invoice” secured a grand complete of zero newspaper entrance pages the next day.
The politics of the brand new laws additionally dominated Starmer’s post-speech press convention. Underneath a barrage of questioning, the Labour chief confirmed that his occasion will vote in opposition to the plans and repeal the Act if he takes energy on the subsequent election.
It was all going to plan for Sunak. He had goaded Starmer out of hiding and compelled the Labour chief to share an ideological platform with that favorite Conservative bogeyman: the so-called union “baron”. The PMQs’ assault traces wrote themselves.
Nevertheless, few would deny that the prime minister is taking part in a high-stakes political sport along with his new anti-strike invoice. Though Starmer’s response could possibly be accounted for, the federal government dangers working right into a hostile public backlash. Now every week on from when the laws was introduced, and plenty of view the brand new proposals as needlessly and intentionally obstructive.
Danger 1: The federal government is seen as needlessly obstructive
Though Conservative MPs think about Mick Lynch as the brand new Arthur Scargill, the notorious union “baron” who led opposition to Margaret Thatcher, most people shouldn’t be so satisfied. As an alternative, the political posturing across the new anti-strike invoice could also be seen as deepening the economic relations disaster and prolonging our winter of discontent.
Moreover, the brand new payments’ parliamentary progress is ready to be sluggish, with a troublesome Home of Lords stage beckoning. And when/if the invoice does finally go, its key provisions will unquestionably be examined within the courts earlier than they’ll take impact, simply as is the case with deportations to Rwanda.
So with the proposed laws unlikely to do something to resolve pressing disputes, the general public might nicely surprise need the purpose is in any respect — if to not be intentionally coercive and punitive.
Danger 2: Labour exploits help for placing nurses
One other threat for Sunak is that by focussing on dangers posed to NHS sufferers in the course of the strikes, he ventures onto territory the place the Labour Occasion is historically at its strongest.
It’s telling that Starmer has targeted his assaults on the a part of the invoice which might permit employers to sack employees who defy a “work discover” by placing. At PMQs on Wednesday, Starmer accused the federal government of going from “clapping the nurses to sacking the nurses”. On Thursday got here a brand new widely-shared graphic by order of Labour Occasion HQ, which accused Sunak of planning to present placing nurses “the finger”, Alan Sugar-style.
This assault line works as a result of it isn’t very removed from the reality. On account of the proposed legislation, particular person nurses could possibly be prosecuted and even jailed. These are the identical individuals Sunak was pictured clapping for, as chancellor, all through the pandemic.
Danger 3: Sunak is seen as a inflexible, uncompromising ideologue
Sunak’s want to be seen as pragmatic and “affordable” could also be essentially undermined by the passage of this invoice.
In pursuing the brand new laws, Sunak has deserted his “managerialism” and political prudence, territory the place the risk-averse Starmer is comfy, to be able to arrange a battle over rules, territory the place Starmer shouldn’t be. Honing in on basic Labour-Conservative variations in a bid to exploiting the Labour chief’s risk-averse nature, Sunak therefore dangers exposing the worst facets of Conservative ideology.
Whereas the prime minister might level to a extra conciliatory tone in negotiations, there isn’t a hiding that the brand new legislation is an act of explicitly Thatcherite homage. It’s as provocative and divisive as a lot as virtually doable, drawing on Conservatism’s collective reminiscence of disputes within the Eighties.
Nevertheless, you can’t assist however assume that in choosing a combat with NHS nurses, Sunak has chosen the unsuitable second to desert his “problem-solving” priorities and get dug in with Conservative dogma. One latest YouGov ballot discovered that 64% of the general public help the placing nurses.
Reasonably than introducing anti-strike laws, subsequently, Sunak’s political future could also be higher served by getting across the negotiating desk and constructively ending the economic dispute as soon as and for all.
So with imagery of nurses in handcuffs circling — and with atypical Britons determined for some extent of normalcy to return, Sunak’s try to entice Starmer on strikes seems to be destined to fail.