WESTMINSTER (Labour Buzz) - Starmer entered PMQs with a host of targets to pick from. He could have chosen the damning verdict on NHS test and trace, the High Courts finding that Johnson had lied to parliament or even a new book detailing his inept response to the pandemic.
Instead, he focused on just one: the scandalous pay offer to the NHS.
Starmer’s first question was simple. Who deserves a pay rise more, an NHS nurse or Dominic Cummings?
He refers of course to the 40% pay rise to Dominic Cummings with the 1% rise for the NHS. Taking inflation into account this will amount to a real-terms cut.
Johnson went into full waffle talking about a ‘massive debt to society’. He highlighted the independent pay review body’ which would be looking at their pay specifically and then claimed starting salaries for nurses had risen by 12.8% over three years. We have, he said, 10,600 nurses in the NHS and 60,000 more in training.
Score: Johnson’s answer saw him at his bluffing best. While nurses pay has risen over the past three years, it has gone down since 2010, as Starmer correctly pointed out moments later. Since 2010 nurses had seen their pay go down by £800.
Round two Dominic’s massive pay rise
Starmer continued with nurses pay by comparing Cumming’s 40% pay rise to nurses’ real terms pay cut.
Johnson continued to bluff his way through talking about the ‘massive debt’ we all owe to the NHS, none more so than himself.
“One of their top concerns,” he added, “is to have more colleagues,” which allows him to role out stats showing an increase in applications for nurses. The UK is, he said, ‘on target,’ for their 50,000 new figure.
Round three: Nurse vacancies
Starmer countered this glib response with some simple figures. There are 40,000 vacancies for new nurses as well as thousands more for doctors.
Meanwhile, Johnson had lavished out money on a new TV studio and £200,000 on a new wallpaper for his private flat.
“I know charity starts at home,” joked Starmer, but this was taking it to extremes.
He asked Johnson to accept that nurses would be hundreds of pounds worse off per year because of last week’s budget. While dealing with council tax rises and a freeze in the personal allowance thanks to their paltry pay rises, nurses will find life much tougher over the next few years.
Johnson promises to look at what the independent pay review has to say, giving himself room for manoeuvre for a possible U-turn. He added more waffle about funding and billions pumped into the NHS during the pandemic.
Round four: Promises, promises
By this time, it was clear that Starmer was going all-in on nurse pay rises. He understood what life was like, he said, because his mother and his wife had both worked in the NHS.
Johnson meanwhile ‘clapped for carers and shuts the door’.
It was, he added, a broken promise. Two years ago he had committed to a minimum pay rise of 2.1%. This has been 'budgeted and now he takes it away’.
“Why is he breaking promise after promise?” he asked.
Johnson replied by saying Starmer voted against that bill and pressing on with his answers about funding for the NHS and increased doctor numbers.
We will, he claimed spuriously given his track record, ‘deliver on our promises’.
Round five: Listen to your MPs
Johnson’s problems don’t end with the opposition. Starmer drew his attention to his own MPs sitting behind him who had variously described the offer as ‘inept, unacceptable, pathetic, about the pay rise.’
Another had said: “The public just hear 1% and they think how mean we are.”
He asked: “Even his own MPs know he’s wrong. Why are they going ahead with it?”
Johnson went on with bursaries, the public sector pay review and recruitment.
Round six. A real term pay cut
For the final question, Starmer gave Johnson a quick lesson in maths. While the government refers to the notion of a pay rise, inflation stands at 1.7%. For anyone who can add up to two, that amounts to a real term cut in pay.
“The mask,” Starmer said, “is slipping.” He challenges Johnson to ‘have the courage' to put his offer to a vote in parliament. Given the dissatisfaction at the deal in parliament, such a vote would see Johnson face a considerable rebellion.
This of course is the whole point. Johnson attempted as always to bluff his way through it, but Starmer exposes simple hypocrisy at the heart of government. He compares the money lavished on Dominic Cummings and on Johnson’s own flat with the slap in the face offered to people who have been saving lives, including the Prime Minister’s.
For this reason, the session has to go down as a whitewash for Starmer. He threw the same punch time and time again, but Johnson kept walking onto it. For that reason, we haven’t scored each question in turn as usual, because it would have been the same result every time.
Johnson, it will be noted, repeatedly brought up the notion of the independent pay review into public services which gives him some room to back down. Politically, Johnson will be hoping that makes a recommendation for a higher pay rise to give him the chance to back out with some dignity.
(Written by Tom Cropper, edited by Klaudia Fior)