A “badly wounded” Boris Johnson is prepared to risk a recession to shore up support from his party’s right, a top union chief has warned, amid signs the UK is heading for months of industrial unrest.
Frances O’Grady, the leader of the TUC, also called on red-wall Tory MPs in former Labour-held seats to rise up and demand better pay rises for workers, or face the consequences at the ballot box.
As inflation soars, the list of groups striking or threatening to strike is growing daily and already includes teachers, junior doctors, barristers and rail workers, as well as airport staff and Royal Mail managers.
Ministers have guaranteed pensions and benefits claimants will receive rises of up to 10 per cent to keep up with inflation, while preparing to offer much smaller sums to public sector workers. The prime minister has said public pay cannot increase sharply, for fear of fuelling a further rise in inflation.
But a new poll for The Independent shows significant support for strikes by public sector workers. It found 59 per cent of the public would back a strike by nurses, 48 per cent doctors, 46 per cent postal workers and 45 per cent railway staff, although just 24 per cent supported walkouts by barristers.
Ms O’Grady told The Independent she believed the prime minister was “badly wounded” and “jerking around” to court favour with the likes of the European Research Group of Eurosceptic MPs, who she said “don’t care about the living standards of working people”, after nearly 150 of his own backbenchers tried to oust him from Downing Street last month.
She said: “I think the truth is that the government is staring in the face of a recession [and] they are figuring out the story for that. They believe recession is a necessary price, and that it’s working people who will pay it rather than trying to get the economy back on its feet and recognising that to do that you’ve got to boost demand and … you’ve got to boost people’s pay packets.”
The swathe of red-wall MPs who won former Labour strongholds at the last election with a message of getting Brexit done should warn the prime minister that workers need fair pay rises if they don’t want to be punished by voters, she added.
MPs in newly Tory seats in the north “should be raising their voices”, she said.
“Working people in their constituencies want stronger rights and they want a fair deal in their pay packets,” she said. When it comes to the next election, she said: “I’m sure their own constituents are asking what they’re doing, and holding them to account.”
Ms O’Grady also suggested the Partygate scandal has eroded trust in government pleas for wage restraint.
Workers “just don’t trust them any more”, she said.
They could also be forgiven for being cynical having heard “we’re all in it together before” under the austerity years of David Cameron.
She also said ministers should realise workers are at their “wits’ end” and called on Mr Johnson to look a nurse in the eye and explain how she is going to manage with a real-terms cut to her income when she is already struggling.
Downing Street has been approached for comment.