Sunak is refusing to negotiate with doctors and is demonising NHS staff. But his Thatcher cosplay isn’t fooling anyone — and it’s increasingly clear this is a fight he can’t win.

(Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

At the start of the year, the Prime Minister set out his five key priorities for 2023 as he sought to steady a sinking Tory ship. One key pledge was to bring down NHS waiting lists. ‘Judge us on the effort we put in and the results we achieve,’ said a self-assured Sunak. 

Eight months on, the number of people on NHS waiting lists in England has climbed to a record 7.6 million. It is estimated that more than 120,000 people in England died last year while on the NHS waiting list for hospital treatment. And, as winter approaches, the pressures on the NHS will only become more pronounced. 

Those working on the wards always knew this was mission impossible. How on earth would NHS waiting lists be brought down while the Government was antagonising half of its workforce? Real terms pay cuts. Impossible workloads. Literal nightmares. NHS staff have never been angrier.  

Junior doctors, who have suffered a 26 percent real terms pay cut since 2008, have staged nineteen days of strike action since March this year; consultants have staged four days, and there are at least five more planned in the coming weeks, including four days of combined action with junior doctors. 

The British Medical Association say so-called negotiations have been shambolic. Now the Government has refused to get round the table altogether, insisting a six percent raise and a one-off payment of £1,250 is the final offer. But this stubbornness is simply unsustainable. 

In October, the BMA will park their tanks on Sunak’s lawn with a coordinated strike during Tory Party conference. He’ll be greeted by a rally of striking consultants and junior doctors in Manchester. And it will be difficult for the press gallery covering the conference not to take notice. Rishi Sunak might not care about the NHS, but the public certainly does. And it could have huge implications as we get closer to a general election. 

In typical tabloid fashion, Andrew Neil sought to demonise doctors in the Daily Mail last week, comparing them to the National Union of Mineworkers. He claimed the BMA were anti-Tory and agreed a deal with the SNP government in Edinburgh ‘similar to the one being offered in Westminster largely because the doctors find it more congenial than the Tory administration in London.’ 

The overwhelming majority of junior doctors who voted to accept a significantly improved pay offer from the Scottish Government are hardly raving Scottish nationalists. The deal was accepted without any industrial action because serious negotiations took place. It’s a higher pay offer than in England: 17.5 percent over two years, a guaranteed minimum uplift of inflation over the next three years, and further annual pay rises above inflation to restore pay. Scotland has demonstrated that there is an alternative to strikes, putting additional pressure on the Government. And this isn’t about anti-Toryism. Indeed, junior doctors and consultants in Wales are in dispute with a Labour-run administration over a paltry five percent offer. 

The British Medical Association have become one of the most powerful trade unions in the country. The union has leverage power, union density and an engaged and active membership. This combination, coupled with the political pressures the governing party faces, means Sunak’s mediocre effort to imitate Thatcher’s taking on the miners is doomed to fail. Junior doctors have just voted by 98 percent for further industrial action, extending their legal mandate to take strike action well into 2024. 

The circumstances today are very different to the 1980s. For one, NHS workers have enjoyed consistent strong support from the British public. A new Ipsos poll revealed 53 percent of the British public support junior doctors going on strike compared to 31 percent who are opposed. The same poll showed 57 percent of respondents said the Government is doing a ‘bad job’ of negotiating with workers to prevent strikes. This is a six percent increase compared to June. 

Clueless commentators like Neil might be happy to see the NHS go the way of the coal industry, but the British public certainly does not, and they will make that clear at the ballot box at the next election. The NHS faces a severe retention and recruitment crisis. Disrespected and demonised, those who form the very backbone of the NHS are leaving in their droves. Unsafe staffing levels affect all of us. These strikes are very much about the future of our public services. There is too much at stake for people not to be paying attention. 

With a General Election looming, does the Prime Minister want to be remembered as the man who failed to resolve a dispute with the very people his government were applauding on the steps of Downing Street a few years ago? The Tory strategy of demonising striking workers has failed by all measures. They have slumped in the polls and are in crisis. Taking aside the moral case for supporting doctors, not resolving this dispute will cost them electorally. Striking doctors aren’t threatening to bring down the Government. They don’t need to do. The Government have shown they are perfectly capable of doing that themselves. 

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