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Festive – Or Restive?




With a million people poised to strike in coming weeks, the most obvious effect on those healthy enough to travel is how difficult that’s going to be. No trains, meaning hideously overcrowded roads, while planes too will be tricky to get on and off. And, as our Political Correspondent Peter Spencer reports, the blame game is already well under way.

While Santa’s sleigh is starting to feel like the least unviable transport option, there’s a sense we’re entering yet another Covid lockdown.

Which is not helped by the freezing cold spell, aka the ‘Troll from Trondheim’ because it comes from Norway, whacking up our already horribly inflated heating bills.

Winter always takes its toll on the elderly and vulnerable. But, with nurses downing tools for the first time ever, now is really not a good time to get ill.

It wasn’t anyway, as analysis by the Labour party suggests no fewer than five million people couldn’t even get a doctor’s appointment in October.

Thirty years ago the then Prime Minister John Major promised ‘a nation at ease with itself’. Yerright, wonder when that’s going to happen then.

And if you want to check out how much things haven’t changed, then look no further than the seminal Beeb series Yes Prime Minister from around the same time.

But in immediate terms, the political focus is going to be the looming spate of strikes. Who’s at fault, exactly? And why now, exactly?

In Oscar Wilde’s words: ‘Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.’

It’d be tempting to think ‘all out’ are the new buzzwords, and that this onslaught of worker grumpiness is nothing but some sort of silly new fad.

Tempting, but wrong.

Thanks to wages not keeping pace with the cost of living, grievances have been festering for years. And what’s brought matters to a head is the sudden surge in inflation.

On top of that, employers have been trying to cut costs by changes in work practices, which tend to mean cuts in the workforce.

Problems are compounded the horribly expensive Covid crisis, and heating and food bills ratcheted up by Putin’s illegal war. Neither of which is the government’s fault.

At the same time, and the official figures are there for all too see, Brexit has contributed to Britain’s sluggish growth.

That’s down to the folk who voted for it, though arguably it’s also thanks to David Cameron for holding the referendum in the first place.

But Labour’s contention is that the Tories’ lacklustre handing of the economy since they took office bears the heaviest burden of responsibility.

And even right-leaning commentators like the Daily Telegraph’s top political hack Christopher Hope say they’re missing too many tricks.

He cites a promise, of three years ago, to bring in a new law to ensure striking rail workers can’t actually cripple the network.

It didn’t even get to its first faltering step through parliament until a couple of months ago, and gone no further since.

Was this our naturally polite Prime Minister not wanting to wind these guys up at this sensitive time? Or ministers simply taking their eyes off the ball?

Understandable on one level, as we haven’t really had a functional government for many months, though Rishi Sunak has at least now lasted longer than Liz Truss.

And he will be keeping a closer watch than any of his colleagues care to admit on polling evidence pointing to public sympathy or otherwise for disruptive union activity.

Of course, alongside the inconvenience to the rest of us, strikes don’t do any favours to those taking part either.

It’s also true to say that actually downing tools is a bit of a blunderbuss. It works better as a threat than a weapon, especially as you only get one shot with it.

In fact, as bosses don’t have to pay non-working workers, and union help is generally pretty minimal, for blunderbuss maybe read pétard. Not a nice thing to be hoist upon.

But now that it’s come to this anyway, both sides are digging in.

So far people are jolly cross with the rail workers. A YouGov survey last week showed more than half opposed the action, and little more than a third backed it.

And even diehard left-leaning Guardian readers don’t really want their Christmas plans spoiled. Though they don’t like to say so, some of them think the strikes suck.

But the rule of thumb here is that the longer people are inconvenienced the more likely it is they’ll be demanding the government steps in and sorts the problem.

Reports that ministers did exactly the reverse of that, stepping in to scupper a deal with the rail companies, might not do them any favours.

Their argument, that double-digit pay rises would only fuel inflation, does carry weight. Especially as this would hit the poorest hardest. But it may not see them through.

Very likely Sunak’s grateful the public’s distracted by the Netflix series on the right royal dustup between Harry and Meghan and what’s termed ‘the firm’.

Not that these guys haven’t got form. After all, Kaiser Wilhelm was said to be Queen Victoria’s favourite grandson, as well as first cousin to our king and the Russian czar.

Was World War One no more than a glorified family squabble then? Discuss.

Scroll forward to now, however, and internecine warfare is very much part of Rishi Sunak’s daily diet.

Only last week he had to cave in to rebels on his own side and change government policy, both on building new homes and onshore windfarms.

Which sort of begs the question – if he can’t get his own parliamentary children to sit up straight and eat their greens, what chance has he got of running the country?

But he does at least manage to wear a smile, and, for the benefit of the Westminster media lobby, crack a few jokes.

At a Downing Street drinks do last week he began one gag with the following words: ‘It is a great honour to be the first British Asian prime minister.’

So far so serious. But not the next bit, which sounded as if he might be saying something uncharacteristically impolite about his Chancellor.

‘I'm just glad people are now pronouncing my name correctly. Though they still seem to struggle with Jeremy Hunt.’

Dear oh dear, surely this wasn’t linked to a generally, fortunately, misunderstood line spoken by Hamlet to Ophelia. ‘Do you think I meant country matters?’

In fact the Downing Street neighbours are still good chums, unlike Sunak’s unavowed but unquestionably unhappy relationship with his badly behaved backbenchers.

Maybe he could take a leaf out of Zuul Crurivastator’s book. For anyone not fully up to speed on prehistoric animals, this was an armoured dinosaur with a hefty hind part.

Until now it had been assumed he/she used this as a weapon to ward off predators like the really scary Tyrannosaurus Rex.

But boffins from the from the Royal Ontario Museum and other ever so learned outfits have uncovered evidence that suggests they also have used it to bash up one another.

If Sunak’s reading this, he could even be channelling another one of Shakespeare’s dirty double-entendres.

‘Thereby hangs a tale.’




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