Tories insisting they are blameless will only dig them a bigger hole

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Good morning. Railway strikes today, ambulance strikes next week. Some thoughts on the policy and politics of all that in today’s note.

Inside Politics is edited by Georgina Quach. Follow Stephen on Twitter @stephenkb and please send gossip, thoughts and feedback to

Somebody else’s problem

The GMB, Unison and Unite unions — representing about 25,000 ambulance workers — will walk out in a co-ordinated strike on December 21 in England and Wales, the day after a separate strike by nurses. A further strike by members of the GMB union is scheduled for December 28.

It raises a difficult question: how, exactly, will we be able to tell?

A fortnight ago, a third of all patients in England waited for more than half an hour outside hospitals in ambulances. A month ago, the length of a wait for hospital care and delays at Accident & Emergency both hit record levels.

In Northern Ireland, patients face a median wait before admission of 13 hours and 19 minutes in A&E, according to official data, as Jude Webber reports.

Our write-up of the looming pressures facing the NHS next week when ambulance workers go on strike reveals that Oliver Dowden, one of Rishi Sunak’s closest allies and his cabinet office fixer, has instructed that taxis be “block-booked” to ferry non-urgent cases to hospitals, a departure from operating procedure only in the sense that normally the task of booking taxis to go to hospital falls to patients directly.

We know what the source of the problem is here: the NHS has had a decade of low funding compared with peer countries. Unlike most peer countries, because the NHS is not funded by a genuine insurance model, the extra cash cannot be raised stealthily but has to come at great political cost through an upfront tax increase.

Bar chart of UK current spending on health under various scenarios: median of 2010–2019, £bn per year showing UK health spending has not matched per head levels in similar countries

It doesn’t help the Conservative government’s political strategy that the Scottish government has reached an agreement with striking NHS workers: a 7.5 per cent pay increase across the service, an up to 11.24 per cent rise for the bottom pay bands and a minimum wage for NHS Scotland of £11 an hour (higher than NHS England’s lowest band pay of £10.37 and England’s statutory minimum wage which rises to £10.42 from April 2023), according to Unite. This settlement will add to the message that the trade unions, the Labour party, the Liberal Democrats, the SNP and essentially everyone else in British politics want to land, which is that these strikes can be resolved if the government sits down and negotiates.

But the bigger problem is that the UK public realm is in a sufficiently bad state that for most people, I’m not at all convinced that their experience of the NHS, or postal service, or any of the other striking services (see our calendar below) in the coming weeks is going to be all that different from the usual. As YouGov’s Anthony Wells tells our reporters:

“The big weakness for the government is a sense that everything is broken. If anything goes wrong, it sticks to them — people assume it’s their fault.”

Given that at least some of the UK’s problems are in fact the fault of forces and factors outside the Tory party’s control, Conservative MPs aren’t being entirely unreasonable when they say they are getting a hard rap here.

But the party has aggravated its difficulties. There are problems that the Conservatives blame Labour for, problems they blame the trade unions for, problems they blame Vladimir Putin for, problems they blame Covid-19 for and problems they blame global economic conditions for. However, there are, to my knowledge, no problems in British public life which the Conservative party — the governing party for the past 12 years and dominant force in British politics for far longer — thinks are the party’s fault.

That means that when Conservative ministers and MPs talk about global factors and long-run challenges they lack any sort of credibility. It feels reminiscent of the mess Labour got itself into over the global financial crisis in 2008. Yes, voters didn’t think the crisis was Labour’s fault. But the party’s insistence that absolutely nothing could have been improved about the government’s economic record going into the crisis aggravated people. Now the Tories are making the same mistake.

One Conservative minister recently suggested to me that the party would be better off just conceding on something: pointing to one issue, holding its hands up and saying that was on them, because the refusal to do so on any issue makes it harder to land the argument that there is more going on elsewhere.

That seems about right to me. If I were in Downing Street, I would pick maybe two problems facing the UK and take responsibility for them.

The first would be the economic weakness of the UK’s cities outside London, because Labour would struggle to attack them on that. The second would be the delusion that you can have American levels of taxation and European levels of public services, because that would facilitate the attack I would want to make against Labour at the next election. Others may have other ideas. (The minister in question thought they should take full responsibility for the party’s recent flirtation with Trussonomics and argue that Keir Starmer’s Labour party represented a similarly dangerous experiment.)

But some kind of different approach is surely better than hoping that the current line will be persuasive or politically fruitful as a winter of strikes, labour shortages and struggling public services wears on.

Now try this

One of the weekend’s small pleasures is reading Tim Hayward’s mouth-watering restaurant reviews.

That this weekend’s review was the Plimsoll, a new restaurant/gastropub/regular pub right on my doorstep meant that I had to try it as soon as possible.

I ate there with a friend last night (at six o’clock in the evening, sorry Tim) and it was lovely. The burger really is astonishingly good, and the service is excellent.

Top stories today

  • ‘Shockingly poor’ social homes | Urgent action is needed to address problems with England’s social housing, according to a wide-ranging review of the sector published today. Housing associations should undertake a comprehensive audit of all 2.5mn homes and give tenants more of a role in decision making, said the authors of the Better Social Housing Review’s final report.

  • Wages fall in real terms | Wage growth in the UK’s private sector accelerated in the three months to October as inflation rose into double digits, according to the Office for National Statistics. ONS data also found there were 417,000 working days lost because of labour disputes in October 2022, which is the highest since November 2011.

  • Kwarteng ignored ‘mini’ Budget alarm bells | Former UK chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng brushed aside Treasury warnings about the £45bn of unfunded tax cuts in his “mini” Budget in September, officials told MPs yesterday.

  • Chilling effect on international investment | New UK government proposals for a US-style register of “foreign influence” risks destroying Britain’s reputation as a global investment hub and will unnecessarily criminalise bank workers, academics and charities, a lobby group has warned.

  • Sanctions policing ‘not good enough’ | Two cross-party groups of MPs have accused the UK government of failing to properly enforce its international sanctions regime, with just 1 per cent of reports of suspected breaches resulting in fines.

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