Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer point the finger at each other as ambulance staff go on strike today and NHS nurses plan more industrial actions for later this month. Comment & Features Editor Sascha O’Sullivan breaks down Prime Minister’s Questions.
Whose fault are the ambulance and nurses strikes? If you’re Rishi Sunak, it’s the Labour leader and his “union paymasters” and the pandemic (notably unable to defend itself). If you’re Keir Starmer, it’s the Prime Minister stoking the flames by introducing so-called anti-strike laws, it’s the entire Conservative party, for austerity, and it’s the British public for not voting for the Labour party for the last 13 years.
The Prime Minister didn’t take to the dispatch box with a Conservative party helping him look serious. His health secretary on Monday announced the NHS would be fixed with “discharge frontrunners”, Grant Shapps was somehow, even after appearing in a picture with Boris Johnson photoshopped out, sounding quite reasonable yesterday, and only hours before Sunak stood up, Andrew Bridgen decided to compare the Covid-19 vaccine program to the Holocaust, only to have the whip swiftly withdrawn. Clearly the infamously disgruntled MP misunderstood the “discharge frontrunner” policy and took it to be a race to be thrown out of the party.
In spite of this, Sunak deftly dealt with the row over whether he used a private GP (he has in the past), begging the question why he didn’t do this weeks ago, and actually managed to crack a decent joke.
The minimum service levels laws, billed by Labour anti-strike legislation, were published yesterday and despite Starmer’s best efforts only sounded more sensible the more Sunak spoke.
The Labour leader accused Sunak of “choosing to prolong the misery” of strikes by failing to negotiate with the unions and then baiting them with minimum service laws. But it would take a hardened socialist to disagree with laws which France, a bastion for crippling strike action, also has on their statute books.
Against the backdrop of an opposition leader who’s only defence was “well, under Tony Blair things were pretty good”, Sunak looked like he might just stand a chance at the next election.
“It’s not a Covid problem, it’s ten years of managed decline,” Starmer crowed after reminding us, yet again, that yes, he clapped for the nurses.
He went on: “It is terrifying to be told you might have cancer, that’s why the last Labour government brought in a guarantee you’d be seen by a specialist within two weeks… when will cancer patients, once again, get the certainty of care that they got under Labour?”.
In response, Sunak almost made it look like he was pro-unions, by saying we’re not the antipodeans we once loved so much.
“In Australia, Canada and the US, they banned strikes on blue light services,” the Prime Minister bellowed, his face scrunching up as he addressed someone who might not have done maths up until the age of 18, “We’re not doing that, all we’re saying is in these emergency services, people should be able to rely on a basic level of life saving care. Why doesn’t he support that?”
Sunak failed to mention that in Australia, ambulance staff have to live with another affront to their dignity: being referred to as “ambos”.
Of course, the ambulance workers and the unions, for their part, would argue they already had protocols in place for strike days. In fact, some striking ambulance staff will be pulled straight from the picket line if there are too many calls coming in. The nursing union also implemented rules not dissimilar to the laws Sunak has brought in.
Thankfully, the row over strikes and unions only made it to the 10 minute mark, with relatively newly-minted SNP leader Stephen Flynn confusing the brief and instead talking about The Union of the four nations.