When Theresa May took over as Prime Minister she spent a great amount of time trying to convince people that the Conservatives were the party of working people. Naturally people like myself laughed in her face because all of her policies tell the complete opposite story, but for many the message was believable. However within a few days of the Queen’s Speech, this narrative has been undermined the Tories’ own actions. The Conservatives and the DUP voted in lockstep to maintain the public sector pay cap at a 1% annual rise which, in practice, is a pay cut.
Labour proposed an amendment to the Queen’s Speech that would have ended the pay cap for public sector workers, which party leader Jeremy Corbyn had previously argued makes recruitment and retention of staff more difficult. The Labour amendment would also have provided funding for increased numbers of police officers and firefighters. The amendment received the support of the SNP, the Lib Dems, Plaid Cymru, independent MP Sylvia Hermon and the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas. The final vote was 309 in favour to 323 against, after all present Tory and DUP MPs voted against the proposal.
Although the public sector pay cut is not a new policy, the vote yesterday was important as the optics of the situation foreshadowed the chaotic years of government ahead. A prime example of this chaos can be shown by the activities of the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson. Johnson was part of a negotiation in Cyprus to reunite the island after years of steady progress on the issue. He was joined by Foreign Office Minister Alan Duncan. Due to the precarious nature of the current government, Duncan and Johnson both had to fly back to London so that they could vote to deny public sector workers a proper pay rise with Duncan returning to Cyprus tonight to resume the talks.
Furthermore the political instability of the Prime Minister is shown by the attitude of Tory MPs. Conservative MPs that supported Labour position revealed themselves to be craven political operators. For instance Tory MP Johnny Mercer said that “I will persistently be a loud voice to remove the public sector pay cap for frontline workers, but I will not vote with this political game today”. It is not a political game for the Opposition to put forward a policy that you agree with, it means that you disagree with the government.
Mercer and Tories who voted the same way for the same reason did so to shore up the government’s authority. If they had supported the Labour position then the government would have been weakened and the inability to get Tory legislation through would have been clear to the nation. It is a timely reminder how the so-called ‘moderate’ Tories will talk a decent game about workers’ rights and public sector pay but when a decision has to be made they side with the rest of their party. All talk and no guts.
It’s also worth acknowledging the strategic decision by Labour to table the amendment because it forced the Tories into a catch-22. If they voted against the motion, as happened last night, the Tories are exposed as opposed to public sector workers’ pay rises. If rogue Tory MPs voted for it, the PM is weakened and the government is defeated in its first week of office. The only other scenario would be if the government backed the Labour amendment which would demonstrate how Labour were setting the policy agenda and the Tories were undoing the cap that they themselves put into place. In every single way this amendment was the correct one to table.
The results of the election revealed that the public were sick to death of the fiscal gruel that the Tories had been imposing on people for the last seven years. Although the Tories won more votes, the narrative coming out of senior Tory MPs was no longer about the need for austerity. When it comes to funding public services, boosting wages, and ending corporate greed, the British people have shown that they line up with the Labour Party.
Further, the government is no so weak that it has handicapped itself as any slight amount of dissent will culminate in a humiliating loss for the government. Labour needs to keep driving the policy discussion and force the government into a series of policy mistakes. This decision was evidence of a strengthened Labour Party forcing the government into an unpopular position. Long may this situation continue and hopefully the Tories’ poll numbers will continue to decline.