PMQs: Starmer draws contrast on pay – NHS nurses or Dominic Cummings?

Sienna Rodgers
© UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

Dominic Cummings may have left 10 Downing Street last year, but that won’t stop Labour from reminding the British public of the man at the heart of government who flagrantly broke lockdown rules. Keir Starmer not only highlighted the widely-criticised real-terms pay cut for NHS staff at Prime Minister’s Questions today, but combined the news with another highly toxic subject that the opposition hopes will stay in everyone’s minds. Who deserves a pay rise more, the Labour leader asked: an NHS nurse or Dominic Cummings?

Boris Johnson did not engage with the question, though no rhetoric could supersede his real-world answer. The government has officially recommended a 1% rise to the independent pay review body that advises the government on NHS salaries, yet the Prime Minister awarded Cummings a 40% “bumper bonus” pay rise despite his rule-breaking. Starmer did not mention it, but the former de facto chief of staff also cost the government even more: remember how sacked special adviser Sonia Khan received a five-figure payoff after being escorted out of Downing Street by police on Cummings’ orders?

Like most Labour MPs, the NHS is comfortable territory for Starmer. But the opposition leader has a particularly personal story to tell, as his mother battled health problems for many years, losing the ability to speak and having her leg amputated. As he reminded us at PMQs, his mother and sister were nurses, his wife works for the NHS now – which is something that everyone in Westminster knows well but the public likely don’t. Starmer then cuttingly told the PM: “When I clapped for carers, I meant it. He clapped for carers, then he shut the door in their face at the first opportunity.”

Towards the end of the session, Starmer summed up the situation: “They can afford to give Dominic Cummings a 40% pay rise, but they can’t afford to reward the NHS. The mask really is slipping, and we can see what the Conservative Party now stands for. Cutting pay for nurses. Putting taxes up for families. He’s had the opportunity to change course, but he’s refused. So if he’s so determined to cut NHS pay, will he at least show some courage and put it to a vote in parliament?” I’m told there are no opposition days coming up soon that would allow Labour to force such a vote, but aides are “looking at other mechanisms”. 

Labour is hoping for a U-turn, which could make a tangible difference to many while also embarrassing the Conservative government. Johnson’s handling of the NHS pay issue has been “inept”, “unacceptable” and “pathetic”, Starmer said at PMQs, quoting Tory MPs, some of whom had even made those comments on the record. With Conservatives warning ministers that NHS staff need a pay rise higher than 1%, will the government stuck by its original recommendation? That is largely in the hands of the pay review body, but in the meantime Labour will keep working to make sure nobody forgets how “the mask slipped”.

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