It’s the first Prime Minister’s Questions of the year and strikes will undoubtedly dominate. Both sides feel they have a political advantage. Rishi Sunak sees his anti-strike laws requiring minimum service levels as a way of uniting his party and claiming that Labour don’t care about the basic safety of the public. Keir Starmer sees the walkouts as symptomatic of a wider government failure to protect public services. Both men have weaknesses.
Labour’s analysis about the public sector being on its knees even when workers aren’t on picket lines has a fair bit of currency. The NHS activity from Sunak and Health Secretary Steve Barclay over the past few days has appeared rather like the pair playing catch-up instead of part of a long-term plan. Indeed, on Monday when Barclay unveiled the latest measures to ease pressure on emergency care, he faced criticism from fellow Tory MP Sir Edward Leigh, who told the Health Secretary:
‘What is our long-term plan? We cannot leave the Labour party to have a long-term plan while we do not. How are we going to reform this centrally controlled construct? People of my age have paid taxes all their life and their only right is to enjoy the back of a two-year queue! What is the Secretary of State’s plan?’
Barclay did give him a long answer about elective recovery and integrated care systems, but Leigh didn’t seem convinced. As I write in today’s Sun, there is little evidence that ministers acted on early warnings about the winter crisis, so it’s easy to be sceptical that they’re listening now.
The problem for Labour is that the unions walking out today in the ambulance dispute are – unlike many of the others holding strikes – Labour affiliated organisations.