It was obvious that the rail strikes would be a focus of today’s Prime Minister’s Questions whether Keir Starmer liked it or not. In his response to the Labour leader’s first question, Boris Johnson accused Starmer of not having the “gumption” to speak out against the strikes (despite the question being entirely unrelated to the subject). Starmer asked the Prime Minister how many meetings he and Grant Shapps had held with rail workers this week to try and resolve the dispute. The Prime Minister dodged the question, claiming that his government “loves” the railways and that the opposition was “backing the strikers, while we back the strivers”.
The Labour leader seized on Johnson’s non-answer, revealing that neither the Prime Minister nor the Transport Secretary had attended a single meeting, but that Johnson did find time to attend a “lavish ball” on Monday – the Conservative Party fundraiser at the Victoria and Albert museum – where a dinner with the Prime Minister, David Cameron and Theresa May was auctioned off for £120,000. Starmer demanded: “Rather than blame everyone else, why doesn’t he do his job, get round the table and get the trains running?”
Unsurprisingly, Johnson’s response to being accused of dodging responsibility was to again dodge responsibility. He told MPs that the government was “doing everything we can” but that it was up to the rail companies to negotiate. Trying to pull the focus back to Labour, the Prime Minister said Starmer’s authority was “on the line” in this matter because of the funding Labour receives from the unions (your regular reminder that the RMT disaffiliated from the Labour Party in 2004).
Changing tack slightly, the Labour leader highlighted that, in the same week the Chief Secretary to the Treasury Simon Clarke said workers should expect a real-terms pay cut this year, it was reported that the government was considering removing caps on bankers’ bonuses. Starmer highlighted the hypocrisy of the two stories, quipping: “Pay rises for city bankers, pay cuts for district nurses.” The Labour leader noted that Johnson had reportedly been lobbied last year about the caps on bonuses being scrapped. He challenged the Prime Minister about finding time for that discussion but failing to attend any meetings with the RMT about the strikes that are “crippling the country”. Johnson replied angrily, accusing Labour MPs of “literally holding hands with Arthur Scargill”.
Starmer navigated the subject of the rail strikes well during today’s session. He resisted Johnson’s repeated attempts to blame the disruption on the opposition party and used the bankers’ bonuses story to expose the double standard within the government’s ‘wage-price-spiral’ line. He argued convincingly that the British public continue to not be a priority for the Prime Minister – demanding to know why, in his final question, the government is “more focused on increasing bankers’ pay than the pay of those that are running the country”.