Winter of discontent

This is an audio transcript of the Payne’s Politics podcast episode: ‘Winter of discontent’

Sebastian Payne
Britain is facing a winter of discontent after sector after sector announced that they’re going on strike and making things even more difficult for a struggling economy.

Mick Lynch
I’m responsible for my union and I stand in front of you and take whatever you wanna throw at me. Nobody from the employers is prepared to stand in front of me and take the responsibility for settling this dispute. That’s what we need.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Sebastian Payne
Welcome to Payne’s Politics, your essential insider guide to Westminster from the Financial Times, with me, Sebastian Payne. In this week’s episode, we’ll be examining those strikes. You heard Mick Lynch of the RMT discuss at the top. What’s causing them? Are there pay deals to be done? How can it be resolved? And is it mounting to a de facto general strike? Jim Pickard, our chief political correspondent, will dissect along with our economics correspondent, Delphine Strauss. And later, we’ll be looking at how the Labour party is taking on Rishi Sunak with a dose of what some are calling “class war”, looking at Rishi Sunak’s background as one of the richest prime ministers to have entered the office. And we’ll be asking, is it going to work and is this what voters care about? The FT’s associate editor and columnist Stephen Bush will analyse along with former Labour advisor and political strategist John McTernan. Thank you all for joining.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Britain is going on strike, or at least large parts of it. Wave upon wave of strikers are hitting the country, from nurses to train drivers, out of concerns about inflation and its effect on the squeezing of living standards. But many of these strikes are putting further burdens on the already strained public services and raising questions. Can a deal be done? Can the government actually find the money that many of these unions are looking for? Frances O’Grady, the general secretary of the TUC, serves up her explanation of why so many unions, particularly in the public sector, are going on strike.

Frances O’Grady
We’ve had the Conservative rule for 12 years. Britain is bottom of the league on growth, on investment, on living standards for working people, with working people facing another two years of a real hit in their living standards. One in three public servants actively considering quitting the job. Nurses in tears because they are working 14-hour shifts with no relief.

Sebastian Payne
Well, Jim Pickard, welcome back to the podcast. When you hear that, that’s just one expression of the pain that’s being felt across the public sector, and the coming weeks and months have been described as a winter of discontent, reflecting the tumultuous 1970s, where pretty much everybody seemed to go on strike. Would you say that’s a fair description of what the country is facing?

Jim Pickard
The most important thing here for historical context is that during 1979, the number of workers going on strike was phenomenally bigger than we are seeing at the moment or we are set to see in the early months of next year. But compared to what we’re used to over the last 20 years or so, this is a pretty big spike. I think the last time we had a spike of any similarity was about a decade ago over pensions, I believe. But is there a lot of discontent in the air? Absolutely. Is it strung out over a lot of sectors? Absolutely. We’re talking about fire, ambulance drivers, nurses, rail; we’re talking about teachers, university staff — it’s basically reaching the point where everybody knows someone or quite a few people who are either battling to go on strike or who are about to go on strike. So there’s definitely that sense in the air and it just kind of adds that broader sense that things are going wrong in Britain in both directions, whether it’s your mortgages going up or your energy bills going up. It adds that sort of sense of discontent, which politically is about unfortunate for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.

Sebastian Payne
Well, Delphine Strauss, great to have you back on the podcast. When you listen to all that, you could say, is this going to turn into a de facto general strike where everyone is simply just downing tools and the whole of the kind of public realm just starts to collapse? Or is this still very sector-specific?

Delphine Strauss
So, the scale of it and just how widespread it is, is starting to look a little bit more ‘70s-like than we expected. At the moment, the numbers involved are more like what we saw in 2011 when we had big public sector strikes, or 2015 when a lot of universities had staff striking. But when you look at the numbers of people who are being balloted at the moment and who might take decisions to go on strike, maybe in the new year — teachers, some of the NHS workers — if those ballots go through, then you could see something that looks much more 1970s-like. But having said that, you probably don’t get one big moment where everybody goes out together. You’re more likely to get strikes with different timing, strikes with different dates in one sector at a time. And also, just because the rules unions have to meet now in order to call a strike are a lot more restrictive than they used to be. What unions tend to do tactically is they don’t ballot everybody nationally all at once. It goes by employer, so, for example, by NHS trust or by one particular local authority for teachers. What that means is that you may pass the hurdles to call a strike in one place, but not in another. The Royal College of Nurses, for example, won a mandate to strike in just over half of NHS trusts. Unison, which announced its own ballot results this week, has a mandate strike in half of the ambulance trusts, but not in most of the others. So it’ll be a very, very disparate picture across the country.

Sebastian Payne
And when you hear what Frances O’Grady was saying, she’s saying it’s not just about the spike in inflation we’ve got at the moment. It’s about the past 12 years of austerity and cutbacks to public services. Where do you see the balance? How much of this is fairly about what’s going on now versus a general unhappiness about the state of public services?

Delphine Strauss
I mean, I think she’s broadly right. I mean, we have a backdrop of incredibly high inflation — 11.1 per cent in the latest data — you know, the growth outlook worsening. We’ve seen strikes in a lot of private sector organisations as well, but they tend to be settled much more quickly. Even in one of the bigger strikes, which was workers at BT, that’s actually been settled in the last few days with a pay deal that’s worth something like 9 per cent on average. In the public sector, it is much more intractable, partly because of the mechanism, which is that pay is generally set by pay review bodies that are meant to be independent but are not necessarily seen as that by the workers. There’s no bargaining mechanism.

Sebastian Payne
Now, Jim, let’s unpack some of the different areas of striking and the one that’s probably had the most attention this week has been the nurses, because obviously everyone knows the NHS is under huge strain from the usual winter crisis, the Covid backlog and of course the ageing population, and the fact we still haven’t got anywhere near solving the social care issue. And this idea the nurses are going on strike, some are saying, well, in fact it’s maybe a bit irresponsible given where things are; others are saying, well, in fact, they’re facing the most dreadful conditions in their work and they need to get better pay. Now I was listening to the Jeremy Vine Show on Radio 2, which is always a fascinating barometer of what public opinion is. And it was so split down the middle on the callers. You had some people who were saying, you know, just imagine what these nurses are having to work with. There are people saying, well, actually, some of them are already quite well-paid compared to the average earnings of the country. Where do you see it? And and how do you see this dispute resolving?

Jim Pickard
We’ve not only had nurses voting to go on strike, which is I believe the first time in their history they’ve voted for a strike over pay. We’ve also got ambulance workers as well from both Unison and GMB. Those just point to this growing crisis in the NHS where there is a massive shortage, I think of over 100,000 nurses and doctors. There are supporters of the government who say that there’ve never been so many doctors and nurses in Britain. The problem is the number of doctors and nurses per patient is definitely lower than where it has been in the past. And therefore we have these great waiting lists and just this sense of massive pressure on the service, despite Conservative government’s putting extra money into the health service at the expense of other parts of Whitehall. It is still very much under strain. As to whether the public supports the idea of nurses going on strike, we should make clear that for both them and for ambulance workers, they will maintain a service for emergencies. But any kind of routine work that they would otherwise be doing, that’s where the cancellation is gonna happen.

Is the public supportive or not? When I was really young, I remember the world’s sort of divided into people who were either sympathetic towards striking unions or thought that they were kind of disgraceful leftwingers. It feels just to me that a lot like these days, people understand both sides of the argument. They understand that there is something quite unpleasant about giving people a massive real-terms pay cut off. They’ve been working hard through the pandemic. You know, when inflation is at 10 per cent and you’re giving someone a 5 per cent pay rise, that is a 5 per cent pay cut. But I think the public also understand that the public finances are under duress. I think it’s much more complicated than opinion polls suggest.

Delphine Strauss
In general, when ambulance workers go on strike, people don’t see them as slackers.

Sebastian Payne
No, absolutely. Now, one of the other areas Jim, which you’ve written a lot about is, of course, trains, and that the RMT, led by the very charismatic Mick Lynch we heard at the beginning of the podcast, have been saying that they need a much better deal for their work because they’ve been on a series of strikes and they’ve got a whole lot in the runup to Christmas, which I think would potentially ruin and disrupt a lot of Christmas, for the first normal Christmas people have had in three years. But Mark Harper was put in by Rishi Sunak to be a slightly more emollient character, shall we say, than some of the predecessors. And this is what he had to say about the potential for the train strikes at Christmas time.

Mark Harper
The train operating companies and Network Rail will have the ability to reach a deal, but we have to be able to have that reform package negotiated because it’s only that that throws up the savings. I do not have a bottomless pit of taxpayers’ money to throw at this problem.

Sebastian Payne
So do you think they can find a solution, Jim?

Jim Pickard
So to be clear, the full 48-hour stoppages that the RMT has pencilled in are not quite over Christmas and new year. They’re kind of mid-December and then I think the first week of January, so after New Year’s eve. But yeah, yeah, they still have the prospect for quite a lot of disruption. Now, interestingly I was talking to the RMT yesterday and asking, you know, where the gap was between what the government is offering and where they are. And, you know, they never go public on what figure they actually want. They talk about it being in line with inflation. So let’s say they’re after 10 per cent and the government’s been offering more like five or six or whatever it is. You can kind of see a landing position around the eight area. But I think one reason that the talks could potentially still go on for quite a lot longer is that it’s never been just about pay. And this is true not only of the railways, but also of many of these other sectors. So where is RMT? They’re worried about potential job cuts and efficiencies, and Network Rail, you’ve also got the government seeking to close ticket offices. You’ve also got the government trying to, as ministers would say it, modernise certain working practises such as, you know, you have machines now that can check for cracks on the railway lines, but the unions still want it to be done with the human eye. But it is not inconceivable to see a settlement. And of course, as soon as you have settlement, so the closest for inflation, that girds the loins of other unions, could have potentially a knock-on effect. And people did notice that the barristers earlier this year got 15 per cent.

Sebastian Payne
Course you mentioned Delphine now a couple of sectors where there have been deals. And one is the barristers who have had a long-running dispute. The other you mentioned was BT, but then also a deal for the local government associations. So what can we take away from those settlements about where the ones who are still on strike might be able to find a landing zone?

Delphine Strauss
All of these disputes have their own specificities. And the barristers one in particular had been running for a long time, even before the inflation cost of living crisis kicked up, was quite unique. The local governments all say the particular thing there is that the unions actually have bargaining arrangements with the Local Government Association there, so it’s not quite the same sort of handed-down-from-central-government approach. One thing that might be worth looking at is the revised pay offer that went out from the Scottish government this week for NHS workers in Scotland, which was worth something like 7.5 per cent on average. That pay offer, the unions are now putting to their members. It’s what they think might be acceptable. So that’s an interesting pointer, maybe.

Sebastian Payne
And Jim, I guess this takes the wider question and we heard about this at PMQs this week where Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer went backwards and forwards and Rishi Sunak used the tried and tested Tory line of talking about union paymasters trying to bankroll strikes and disrupting the country, and Keir Starmer saying Rishi Sunak’s responsible for the big drop in living standards, you know. What’s your sense about how that develops politically?

Jim Pickard
I have to say I missed the PMQs yesterday because I was having lunch with an old pal from Vote Leave. I did see the conservative attack adverts that were on social media last night, basically saying that under Labour you’ll get more strikes, more inflation, more debt and more migration. And I have to say, the brass neck of (laughter) that tagline, when we have a government which is presiding over record levels of all four. It just struck me as sensational. It’s like they’re trying to pull these levers which have worked in the past. It feels to me a bit like they’re running out of ways to attack Labour, especially because Keir Starmer has made himself such a small target by being quite boring and quite patriotic.

Sebastian Payne
You can’t really talk a narrative into existence, which is what they’re trying to do here. And also Keir Starmer is not exactly being enthusiastically in support of these strikes, has he? You know, he’s distanced himself quite a lot and he sacked Sam Tarry, who was a shadow rail minister, for attending a picket line of the RMT and is taking quite a tough line on other people in the party because of that.

Jim Pickard
And also Labour is not falling into the trap of saying, yes, we’d most definitely give all of these public sector workers a 10 per cent pay rise. That kind of fudging that question, they’re saying, is primarily an issue of the independent pay bodies. It doesn’t make them a very sort of energetic, attractive political force, but it does make them much harder for the Tories to take chunks out of.

Delphine Strauss
Although the difference there is that, I mean, I think they’ve actually said quite explicitly that they would also not fund the pay deals people are asking for. They also say it’s not affordable, although of course there’s no precise number given. But the difference is that they would legislate to give trade unions better bargaining rights.

Sebastian Payne
Because there were some reforms brought in by the conservatives, I think it was actually a last couple of governments where they said they were gonna make it much tougher to go on strike. And you mentioned about how sectors are being affected in different ways, Delphine.

Delphine Strauss
They would definitely take an approach of giving trade unions a better environment to operate in and also making other changes to employment law that people have been pushing for.

Jim Pickard
The Labour have promised to rip up all this legislation. They promised to turn the clock back at least five years. And so the biggest change we’ve seen on this Conservative government is that you need to not only have 50 per cent of workers saying yes to go on strike, but also in areas where it’s kind of critical infrastructure, I can’t remember how they phrase it but, you know, important public services, you need to have at least 40 per cent of the entire workforce, which is quite a difficult hurdle to get over. What we’ve seen, say in the past couple of days is that Unison passed with 400,000 members over strike action, 80,000 voted to go ahead. But the way that actually pans out is, because they only got approval in certain ambulance trusts, it means that the number who are, would actually legally be able to go on strike are only about 15,000. So you can see in practice that the way that this new legislation is throttling the ability of people to go on strike.

Sebastian Payne
And finally, Delphine, this question, if you listen to what Rishi Sunak was saying about these strikes, and was saying these are kind of union leaders who are going by militance too for their own reasons and to try and harm the government. Is there any sense of that from the union leaders that you’ve spoken to? You know, how much of this is about sort of their personal position versus the actual issues of their members? I just wonder if there’s any sort of grandstanding going on at all?

Delphine Strauss
I mean, there’s always grandstanding. And, of course, union leaders will see a moment like this as an opportunity to show what trade unions can do for their members. They want to show that unions can win people a better deal and are worth joining. Of course, they do. But having said that, the backing for these strikes is much broader than we’ve seen in the recent past, and there are very clear economic reasons for it.

Sebastian Payne
Finally, Jim, we’ve been discussing in our office this week how long that will go on for, whether there is a tipping point. And if things do get so bad with the strikes, public opinion will go in the opposite direction.

Jim Pickard
You can definitely see people getting a bit of strike fatigue. You can definitely see it with the railways. I have to, now I’m finding Mick Lynch’s jokes kind of less amusing than at the start of all this because the strikes are disrupting my travel as a member of public. But you know that works for the government as well. People get fed up with the unions, but they also get fed up with government, too. And eventually that will create pressure on both sides to strike some sort of deal. But we’re still gonna have rolling months of this in various different sectors over the next winter and spring.

Sebastian Payne
Jim and Delphine, thank you very much.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Sebastian Payne
Out of touch and weak — those are the two characteristics that the Labour party has chosen to hone in on for their attacks on Rishi Sunak. For much of the past month since he became prime minister, Keir Starmer has focused on the weakness. But this week the focus turned onto his wealth and the sense that he comes from a rarefied background that is alien to the rest of the country. At prime minister’s questions on Wednesday, Starmer went to the attack on his education at one of the country’s most expensive schools.

Keir Starmer
Winchester College has a rowing club, a rifle club, an extensive art collection. They charge over £45,000 a year in fees. Why did he hand them nearly £6mn of taxpayer’s money this year in what his levelling-up secretary calls “egregious state support”?

Sebastian Payne
Well Stephen Bush, great to have you back on, as always. Let’s just talk briefly about the weak element of those two attacks, because there’s been some clear opportunities for Keir Starmer. Number one, you obviously had the allegations against Gavin Williamson, the former minister without portfolio — he was forced to resign. You had the allegations against the home secretary, Suella Braverman — she’s still in position where facing a judicial review over things being accused of with illegal migration detention. And then finally, you’ve had Dominic Raab, the justice secretary and deputy prime minister, and this sense that he is a bully and that these allegations and crucially that Sunak knew about it. We’ve had a lot of that in PMQs. Do you think the weakness thing stands up to scrutiny?

Stephen Bush
The weakness thing is interesting, right? Because it’s not a thing that Labour say, can we help in their focus groups? I try and make a point of going on to, you know, whenever I sidle up to a private company in an organisation, can I sit in on time? It hasn’t come up in any of the focus groups by various sort of polling companies, and I’ve sat in either. But it’s sort of obviously true, right? You’ve wrote that very good piece this week, sort of about the full factions in the party that make it hard for him to get what he’s done. He has this government and it’s essentially this kind of weird kind of chimera designed solely to pass budgets to keep various factions on the side. And actually we saw in that clip, right. We have a situation where the policy he wants on private schools is one of his secretaries of state is on record making a very eloquent argument against. Now in normal times, a prime minister would be strong enough to go, God, this is embarrassing. We’ve got to get Michael Gove out of there. But he can’t do that because this government needs all of the . . . 

John McTernan
Because he’s weak.

Stephen Bush
Yeah, ‘cause he’s weak. It’s the most effective type of political attack line.

John McTernan
It’s true.

Stephen Bush
Yeah, it’s true. And any fair-minded observer goes “yeah, he’s (inaudible) are right, sir.”

Sebastian Payne
Well, John McTernan, it’s great to have you back at the podcast after far too long and you’ve answered my question I was going to ask you there, which is, do you think there’s enough to thread for Starmer’s narrative to take a hold? And do you think the public will agree with him on that? Or is this just Westminster knockabout? Because we are talking here about the factions within the Tory party and MPs, and voters don’t take much notice of that.

John McTernan
The thing is, it’s a character attack. The thing that people notice in prime ministers and leaders is they can’t actually judge whether all the decisions they make are right, they don’t have all the information. They do have an ability to judge on character. And when somebody looks weak and they act weak, they kinda go . . . they wouldn’t characterise the way me and Stephen are doing what you’re doing. I go to you a book launch this week and I saw Michael Portillo and we were chatting and Michael was going “You can’t even tell which thing they’re going to U-turn on”. So sometimes it’s pro-Nimby as in their housing targets being taken away, but then sometimes it’s anti-Nimby, with seeming to want to put some onshore wind in place and force that into communities. That is a sense that you’re making it up as you go along and that is the most dangerous thing, is the rather looseness, is adrift. And the one thing that the new prime minister needs is to give a sense of direction, slowly, gradually rebuilding confidence in the public among voters and in the economy and on the global markets. And if you look as though you’re just being driven this way and that way, that adds up to a picture of somebody adrift.

Sebastian Payne
And this is something I’ve had a basher write about in my FT column this week. The fact that Sunak is going away for six weeks, essentially the idea there’s not much going on in politics. There’s a couple of strikes we had talked about earlier in the podcast. But obviously, you know, it’s Christmas time.

John McTernan
Winter’s coming.

Sebastian Payne
It’s normally a low-key political time in terms of stuff you have to do. And he essentially wants to come back in the new year and then say, right, this is what Sunak has amiss, because you’ve kind of got three things that define where he’s come from. One is the 2019 Tory manifesto, one is the summer leadership contest, and one is what he’s doing now. And add all those three things together, it’s not entirely clear where exactly he is. And that’s, I think, does create that perception of weakness.

John McTernan
When the cat’s away, the mice will play and we know the backbenches, the Tory party are at it all the time. We know that the big dog himself is prowling around thinking that maybe he’s able to come back next year after local elections look really bad, but more importantly, Labour with its tail up. Labour aren’t gonna go, “you know what? The PM’s away for six weeks, should we just have a break?” They’re gonna say “six weeks when we can make the headlines, we can drive the news”. And it’s the moment when there’s a weakness in the PM is actually driven by his backbench. It’s still the Tory party making the news so Labour have to shift to a place where they can make the news. I think a space is created by Rishi Sunak because the thing is we do know what he’s about. He did a pretty good Mais lecture where he set out as a chancellor what he wants to do for the economy. That still would work pretty well for him as a prime minister, a prime minister with the economic experience and some kind of stable sense of how to grow the economy. Slow, hard, difficult work. But that, again, fits with the projection of competence that he needs. I think going away for a break is dangerous because when you’re away, things can happen. It’s dangerous, because it suggests that he can do that when, how many workers could afford to take such a long break?

Sebastian Payne
Now, Stephen, let’s go on to the out-of-touch element, because again, in some respects, this battle’s already been tested by the Tory party that in the summer you had supporters of Liz Truss and Boris Johnson and people like Nadine Dorries having a go at Rishi Sunak for the cost of his shoes, his suits, his watches, heated tea mug, you name it. Everything about it was generally seen as a little bit expensive and sort of out of touch from what people could even dream of buying. And that was the focus of Starmer’s PMQs attacks. Why do you think he went in on this topic this week when, as John has just been saying, there’s so much other stuff going on?

Stephen Bush
So I think there are a couple of reasons. The first wasn’t Labour being attacked first over their private schools tax policy, which I mean is actually really a revenue raiser, right? It actually, well, it exists alright so they can go, “We totally do have a costed plan because we’ve got this extra 1.7bn we do by doing this”. Because although the individual policy is popular, the idea of Labour tax rises in general less so. So I think what they wanted to do is they wanted to go, “Look, this isn’t an argument about our revenue raisers. This is actually an argument about whether or not the prime minister is too rich to win an election”. Now, I don’t think that there actually is such a thing as too rich to win an election. But in some ways this was, I think, primarily actually a defensive PMQs on Keir Starmer’s point of saying, “Look, I want the argument about school fees to be about the idea that it’s the politics of envy. I do not want it to be about the idea that it’s the politics of there are no easy tax rises left”.

John McTernan
I think that’s absolutely right. But I think what we saw in Keir, and it surprised me slightly, was a new flexibility, a new ability that when the attack came back from Rishi, this is an attack on aspiration. Keir was able to go, “Well! Talk about aspiration. Well, actually, people who want to cannot buy a house and the age at which you can buy a house is going up”. And I think that attack probably resonated massively.

Sebastian Payne
The issue about his wealth, as obviously the statistic is often put around that he’s the first prime minister to be richer than the monarch of the country that he is serving in. And, you know, that is huge amounts of wealth we are talking about here, John, you know, hundreds of millions of pounds. More so, you know, it’s not even the 1 per cent, it’s probably like the 0.1 per cent. And in some ways, Labour has sort of done this before. If you think of the 2015 election, there was an awful lot from Ed Miliband about David Cameron the toff, David Cameron from his privileged background. And even that obviously was a different level to where Rishi Sunak is, but it didn’t quite work. And I’m always sceptical of these what you might call class war tactics. I do wonder whether the voters just are not interested.

John McTernan
I don’t think the class war attacks work. I think they bounce off or they fall flat. What I think is difficult is when you have a country worried about cost of living, when you have a country worried about ambulance wait, so NHS waiting lists, about rising crime, about women’s safety on the streets, about young men’s safety on the streets of London, it’s quite easy to really badge a prime minister as out of touch if he’s not talking about those issues, not addressing those issues. Rishi Sunak has the ability to say, “My home secretary, she’s in place to be controlling immigration and fighting crime”. It’s like these are bad issues for the Tories unless they have a plan, a strategy, an attack, a way of actually gripping those issues. And I think it’s the lack of grip and therefore the lack of focus and the lack of talking about those policies in substance that people can understand that allows Labour to go “out of touch”. And so you, “out of touch” becomes one of the most binary, most important binaries in politics is that is on your side versus out of touch. Boris Johnson was definitely on the side of the voter. That’s why he won the Brexit election. Out of touch is deadly. You can never get back from “out of touch” and so they try and stick that label on him. I’m sure that’s what Labour’s focus groups are focused on at the moment.

Sebastian Payne
And Stephen, what’s the answer to that? If you’re in Sunak’s position, what sort of things can you do to rebut that? You know, they talk about aspiration. He was referencing, of course, his family story and I remember Cameron gave a speech, he’d been PM for two years, opposition leader for seven years, so a prominent figure for some time. And in this situation he was saying that, you know, it’s not about where I came from, it’s where I’m going and I want everyone to have the same opportunities as I’ve had. And it feels like Sunak is gonna have to do that sort of thing. Do you think he can pull that off?

Stephen Bush
Probably not. No, to be honest. One of the differences is David Cameron was a very effective politician, right? And one of the things he did incredibly well was he presented himself as this kind of, oh, I’m just this folksy, like Boden-wearing dad. He had a clear sense of . . . 

(Overlapping speech)

Stephen Bush
Yeah, exactly right. Whereas the distinct challenge, I think, of Rishi Sunak’s wealth is that most of it’s not his. He’s married into it, right, which means in the usual things that I would advise a politician who, about their wealth, is to say, “Yes, I own this because this is a great country. We all succeed when we can all succeed,” etcetera, etcetera. But he can’t really say any of that because him marrying well is great news for him, but it doesn’t really say anything about the national story. And there’s an added problem then, as we saw with the rather non-doms. Well, you know, I continue to think that actually there’s a pretty good argument to be made that the UK taxpayer shouldn’t be able to claim the tax on the dividends on an Indian technology company. But this family is such a kind of berserk button for him. He starts to look very bad on television. I think it’s difficult because he clearly doesn’t want to and doesn’t believe he does need to come up with a sort of national story of his wealth. It’s quite hard to do a sort of inspiring, I aspire to a country where every man can marry a very, very wealthy woman. I mean, I’d love to marry a very wealthy woman, but, you know, I just don’t think it’s really a portable aim. And so, yeah, I think he’s gonna struggle on it.

Sebastian Payne
And John, over the past sort of 12 years since Labour’s last in government, for I think how many Labour leaders and prime minister combos we’ve seen in the dispatch box, how well matched do you think Sunak and Starmer are in terms of opponents? Because I think sometimes when it was Boris Johnson versus Jeremy Corbyn, I think you could say Jeremy Corbyn was roundly beaten by Boris Johnson with his sort of bluster and his usual way of doing things. David Cameron often got the better of Ed Miliband. I think he was more in control and had a more positive tone. But it feels as if Starmer and Sunak have a lot of attributes, if not their personal background that Stephen was talking about. A lot of characteristics that are quite similar.

John McTernan
There’s two things to say. One is that you should also judge prime ministers versus opposition leaders by the record. And, you know, in terms of getting rid of prime ministers, his star rose two nil up. (Laughter) He has had seen off two already. I thought when the two of them were gonna be face to face, it would be much more of a match because they both have very similar approaches to politics: quite serious, verging on the technocratic. And you are taking away from it the personal bitterness between, you could see between Boris and Keir that neither . . . 

Sebastian Payne
That was a morality thing as well . . .

John McTernan
They didn’t respect each other, did they?

Sebastian Payne
Yeah . . . No, they didn’t.

John McTernan
I think that Keir has found a new flex, a new ability to think on his feet. No, all great silks are able to think on their feet. That’s one of their characteristic strengths. I’ve not been seeing that in the Commons, to be honest. I’ve not been seeing that in PMQs, but you start to see it this week. And you see it and know it. Maybe it’s sharper lines. I think he is getting better lines written for him by his speechwriter. He’s just better prepared. I thought they were gonna be evenly matched. It feels actually Keir’s experience in PMQs is coming through and it’s very clear that he says some things to be clipped on the evening news and I think his clips run much better. Whereas Rishi still sometimes seems to read out the briefing book. And he really shouldn’t.

Stephen Bush
I think the thing is, ultimately, PMQs is always one outside the chamber. Right?

John McTernan
Mmm.

Sebastian Payne
Yes.

Stephen Bush
Yeah. The prime minister can mostly force a draw because they have the final answer. But broadly speaking, there has never been a PMQs which is actually settled (Seb laughs) by the exchanges. (Inaudible) I suppose the partial exception is the time Ed Miliband’s people convinced themselves that David Cameron couldn’t rule out. I think we are seeing a fascinating transformation in Keir Starmer’s public performances and then I would have said one of the most embarrassing ways to spend 20 minutes in Westminster was when he didn’t feel that his line was very good and he, yeah, he kind of delivered these bad jokes with the sort of enthusiasm of a hostage video. (Laughter) He’s clearly feeling better right? But I mean, who among us wouldn’t feel better with a 20-point poll lead? (Laughter)

Sebastian Payne
Exactly. And finally, John, I think in the first couple of PMQs, Rishi Sunak didn’t really have anything to say because he hadn’t done the Budget and he was stuck in this place of having to say, “Yes, mistakes were made under Liz Truss. But by the way, I’m gonna defend everything that’s happened over the past 12 years because you’re a Conservative party leader, you kind of had to.” But, you know, he’s now got . . . 

John McTernan
Now unfortunately, he’s done the Budget.

Sebastian Payne
Well, now he’s done the Budget and I think that helped to have a better PMQs after that. But this comes back to the earlier point we were saying that if he wants to do better against Starmer and find a way of fending off these attacks that he’s weak and he’s out of touch, is that something he can actually say? And so I take your point about disappearing off. I mean, he’s not literally gonna be hiding away in a shed in County Durham like Dominic Cummings, but I think he’s gonna be focused much more on these kind of deeper issues. But it will be interesting when we get to that point in the new year. And in fact what’s a bit more substantial, when is the pressure gonna come on Labour to put more details on what it would do?

John McTernan
Labour’s gonna have two years of pressure. Labour needs in my view to look and act like the alternative government, but as a consequence they will be and should be treated like the alternative government, but without the ability of the Civil Service and Treasury to test everything and plan everything, cost everything. I was very surprised in the budget when Jeremy Hunt explicitly said VAT on private school fees would raise £1.7bn because it means he was basically giving a £1.7bn to the Labour frontbench to spend. I was surprised too they didn’t do something on non-dom tax because if I’d been doing it politically, I’d done something. So you can say Labour can’t make up a number and spend it, but Labour can spend non-dom tax, £3.4bn, (inaudible) a figure we’re giving on it. And I think that Labour needs really to have symbolic policies in place. That for me is the real thing. What are the differences they’ll make?

Stephen Bush
I think essentially as John says, right, people now think Labour’s gonna be the government. I think the chance for Rishi Sunak is that he doesn’t really want to be the type of prime minister that Jeremy Hunt’s Autumn Statement said they are.

Oh yeah.

Sebastian Payne
Exactly.

Stephen Bush
He wants to be more rightwing in his government.

John McTernan
Yes, yes!

Stephen Bush
The problem is, this didn’t like, well, the political decision has been made. Yeah. The weird tension of this government is he is a (inaudible) politician at the party’s right, governing in this weird coalition with the party’s left. But I think he needs to accept, because the fiscal event has happened, those decisions have been made, that he is going to have to fight the next election on Jeremy Hunt’s terms. Let Rishi be Hunt, basically. (Laughter)

Sebastian Payne
Well, Stephen and John, thank you very much for joining us. And that’s it for this week’s episode of Payne’s Politics. If you like the podcast, then we recommend subscribing. You can find us through all the usual channels to receive episodes as soon as they’re released. We also love positive reviews and nice ratings.

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Payne’s Politics was presented by me, Sebastian Payne, and produced by Anna Dedhar and Howie Shannon. The sound engineers were Breen Turner and Jan Sigsworth. Until next time. Thank you for listening.

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