Iron secretary

He didn’t quite dress up as Maggie, but he did everything but


“We are now less than eight hours away from the biggest railway strike since 1989,” the Transport Secretary Grant Shapps told Parliament. “A strike orchestrated by some of the best-paid union barons representing some of the better paid workers in this country, which will cause misery and chaos.”

It was odd, really, how pleased he looked about it all. A strike all his own! Almost since the moment Margaret Thatcher fell, the Conservative Party has yearned to recreate her finest moments, like a 1980s-focussed offshoot of The Sealed Knot. Absent someone seizing the Falklands again (or at least Gibraltar) a confrontation with a trade union is very much the dream for many of the Cabinet.

Shapps is fortunate, then, that he gets to deal with the RMT’s Mick Lynch, who seems if anything happier than the Transport Secretary at the prospect of a return to industrial strife. Not, of course, that Shapps is dealing with the RMT. He was very clear in his statement that it wasn’t for the government to stop strikes from happening. “We are not the employer,” he told the chamber. The negotiations were matters of detail that the government couldn’t possibly get involved in. Although, weirdly, he went on to argue that the Labour Party definitely should.

This seemed to put Shapps off momentarily

You might remember Labour from their four election defeats since 2010, in which time, faced with the most chaotic government that the Conservatives could deliver, they somehow still managed to go backwards. Yet according to Shapps, this party with fewer than 200 MPs is the only group in the country that can stop the rail strikes. For days, members of the Cabinet have been begging the Labour frontbench to get involved, even though a moment spent listening to Lynch suggests he’s if anything more contemptuous of Keir Starmer’s Labour than he is of the government.

Anyway, he said, the RMT wasn’t serious about a deal. It was using “all the tricks in the book to confuse, to obfuscate, to mislead the public”. Coming from Shapps, that was pretty high praise.

“They walked out an hour ago to go and hold a press conference,” he said, his voice laden with sad fury at the very idea of someone seeking publicity. Shapps is, it should be remembered, a man who briefs reporters every time he opens a spreadsheet. There has not been a Tory electoral success in the last 15 years which he hasn’t let it be known was really down to him.

Stuck miserably between the RMT and the government are the travelling public – and Labour. Spokeswoman Lousie Haigh said her party didn’t want the strikes to go ahead, but many in her party think the strikers have got a point. She returned fire on Shapps. He hadn’t held a single meeting with the unions, she said. “No talks, no discussions, only media interviews and a petition to the Labour Party.”

Shapps fired back that Haigh was “a former union official”. He, of course, is a former peddler of get-rich-quick schemes called Michael Green.

Labour’s Charlotte Nichols revealed that her mother was one of those going on strike on Tuesday. “My mum and the other key workers are not striking because they want to,” she said, “it is a last resort.” Many of them, she pointed out, were not highly-paid drivers, but cleaning staff.

This seemed to put Shapps off momentarily. “I want the salaries to be higher,” he said, before pointing out that nurses got paid far less and had seen much lower pay rises over the last decade. “We do need to make sure that the fair settlement is fair for everybody.”

If you think the government is treating railways workers badly, he seemed to be saying, you should see how it treats nurses. Perhaps before long some of his Cabinet colleagues will get their own strikes. All this, and Kate Bush back in the charts too. It’s a fine time to be a Tory child of the Eighties.

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