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Johnson and Shapps pretend they can’t end the rail strikes. That’s nonsense Ed Davey

June 22, 2022 8:53 PM
By Ed Davey MP - Leader of the Liberal Democrats in The Guardian

The PM and his transport secretary pose as bystanders while millions of Britons suffer. They could intervene. But they have no will and no plan

Transport secretary Grant Shapps
'Grant Shapps is presiding over the biggest set of transport crises for decades: chaos at our airports, the price of petrol, and now these rail strikes.' Photograph: Guy Smallman/Getty Image

This week has left the country drained after government ministers reverted to divisive political playbooks last seen in the 1970s and early 1980s.

The Liberal Democrats are against the rail strikes and if a summer of discontent is not to turn into a winter of discontent and full-on stagflation, ministers must step back from the brink.

The position of lower-paid workers across our country should be at the forefront of ministers' thinking - not that of the highest earners in the City, whose pay and bonuses the government announced this week would not be limited in any way.

For back in the real world, I've heard this week of anguished people unable to visit their elderly and vulnerable parents. I've heard of nurses now forced to take multiple buses, struggling to get to their 12-hour hospital shifts. And I've also heard from dedicated public sector workers, scraping by on low or even minimum wages, unable to afford to pay for even basic necessities, as prices spiral out of control, leaving wages far behind.

The solution to such distressing stories is clear: instead of strikes, there should be dialogue between government ministers and union bosses.

Boris Johnson and Grant Shapps in particular are playing politics with people's lives, as they pretend to be innocent bystanders to the dispute. Government ministers now directly set and agree the budgets and strategic policies of the rail companies, so they cannot simply wash their hands of any responsibility: rail managers have only modest leeway in their negotiations. Yet, thanks to parliamentary questions asked by my colleague Sarah Olney,
we know ministers haven't met the RMT to try to stop these strikes, for well over a month.

And as would-be passengers know only too well, not only have ministers failed to stop the strikes, they've also failed to plan ahead to minimise the disruption they are causing. There is no plan whatsoever to help frontline public sector employees get to work, whether that's in hospitals or police stations. And as if parents and children haven't gone through enough stress over the past two years, ministers have even failed to bring forward any plans to ensure every pupil can attend vital exams this week.

Ministers must now clean up their own mess. Liberal Democrats are calling for an emergency Cobra meeting to kickstart a practical compromise and to keep Britain moving.

Given the bite of the cost of living crisis, Cobra must also ensure low-paid frontline workers - who we all depend on - are not out of pocket from this strike and can get to work.

If these strikes continue all summer much of the blame will lie at Shapps's door. "Sleepy Shapps" is presiding over the biggest set of transport crises for decades - whether it's the chaos at our airports, the rocketing price of petrol or now these rail strikes. It's beyond time for him to start doing his job. It is time he put the travelling public first, treated low-paid rail workers with respect and not as a political opportunity and looked beyond their provocative union bosses touring the TV studios.

With public-sector pay lagging behind both inflation and private-sector pay by a wide margin, it's also time the prime minister stopped playing his divisive politics. One way would be for him to deliver on his own recent promise of higher wages. Or, assuming that was yet more Johnson headline-grabbing bluster, he could at least show some leadership, demonstrate that the year is 2022 not 1972, and work to bring people together.