How NHS pay scandal reveals Government complacency – Bill Carmichael

ONE strange characteristic of the current Government, considering how packed it is with seasoned political operators, is that it never seems to spot the garden rake lying on the lawn until it steps on it – and then the thumping thwack of the handle to the face catches everyone by surprise.

Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak are facing mounting anger over NHS pay.

One example is Rishi Sunak’s 
massive tax raid in the Budget last week which has caused disquiet among Conservative backbenchers and has 
given Sir Keir Starmer and Labour 
an easy attack line that the Government 
is putting up taxes on ordinary 
families.

This is undoubtedly true – and in two years’ time they will also be putting up taxes on business – but the Chancellor looked hurt and affronted that anybody could possibly accuse him of being a high-tax politician. “Who? Me?” he seemed to say.

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Similarly, this week did no one in Government recognise that the one per cent proposed pay rise for NHS staff would be neatly characterised by the Labour opposition as a “pay cut for nurses” (when inflation is taken into account)?

There's mounting anger over the proposed one per cent pay increase for NHS staff.

Given the heroic role of front-line medical staff in fighting the pandemic, any suggestion that ordinary nurses could be getting a raw deal was always going to be politically toxic.

But again Ministers seemed totally caught by surprise both by Labour’s effective tactics and the unease at the NHS pay settlement by Government supporters in the House of Commons.

The end result, after Boris Johnson was given a mauling by Sir Keir at Prime Minister’s Questions this week, is the hint of yet another U-turn, with the Prime Minister conceding that he will wait to see what the independent pay review body has to say.

In other words, if that body recommends a higher pay rise for nurses than Ministers suggested, then the one per cent deal will be scrapped for something bigger, and the sense of a Government adrift and lacking clear direction will gain traction.

Of course there are sound reasons in both cases for the Government’s plan of action. The pandemic has ripped a gaping hole in the public finances and Sunak could legitimately argue that some higher taxes are necessary to plug the gap.

Similarly, with nurses’ pay, the Government could point out that they had seen their pay rise under a previous pay deal.

According to Health Minister Nadine Dorries, the average nurse’s salary is around £34,000 a year and pay has gone up by about 12 per cent over the last three years.

And is it fair to give bumper pay rises for people in relatively secure jobs – the Royal College of Nursing is demanding a whopping 12.5 per cent increase, for example – at a time when unemployment in the private sector is likely to soar and tens of thousands of small businesses have been destroyed?

But, of course, politics is not all about cool and calm reason. It also has to deal with the febrile and unpredictable 
matter of public opinion, and policies, no matter how well thought through, still have to be presented in a convincing way to the voters. That is simply not happening effectively enough at the moment.

Of course none of this may matter. We are probably three years away from a general election and the Conservative lead over Labour in the opinion polls is strengthening. Will anyone remember the row over nurses pay come 2024?

But there is a threat to the Conservatives here. The constant drip, drip of things going wrong will cumulatively create an image of incompetence that will be seriously damaging to their electoral prospects.

At the moment, the brilliant rollout of the vaccine programme – for which Ministers do deserve a pat on the back – is buoying Government support in the country.

But there is a danger, particularly if mass inoculation is a success and we get back to normal before the end of the year, that the vaccine heroics of 2021 will be dismissed as ancient history by the time voters come to choose the next government.

People tend to forget the things that go right, but have much better memories for things that go wrong. In short, the Government cannot rely on the success of its vaccine rollout to boost its popularity some years down the line. It needs to up its game in other areas of policy too.

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