Public service pay rise cap adds to Downing Street consternation

Boris Johnson and Michael Gove want to lift limit of 1% on pay hikes amid talk of austerity

British prime minister Theresa May and Boris Johnson: former leadership contender believed to back “the idea of public-sector workers getting a better deal”. Photograph: Leon Neal/PA

British prime minister Theresa May and Boris Johnson: former leadership contender believed to back “the idea of public-sector workers getting a better deal”. Photograph: Leon Neal/PA

 

Theresa May’s government appeared in disarray over public service pay on Monday night, with ministers calling for a cap on pay increases to be lifted while Downing Street ruled out a change of policy until next year. Foreign secretary Boris Johnson on Monday joined environment secretary Michael Gove in calling for a 1 per cent cap on pay rises for public sector workers to be lifted.

The prime minister’s official spokesman said, however, that pay review bodies for nurses, doctors, dentists and the armed forces have already recommended that rises be capped at 1 per cent for the coming financial year and that the government had accepted the recommendations. He said that pay review recommendations for other workers, including teachers and senior civil servants, would only apply to the financial year beginning in April 2018.

A source close to Mr Johnson said the former Conservative leadership contender “supports the idea of public-sector workers getting a better deal”. Other ministers backing an easing of austerity for public sector workers include health secretary Jeremy Hunt and education secretary Justine Greening.

Some Conservatives blame their disappointing performance in last month’s general election on the public’s weariness with austerity after seven years of spending cuts. But former work and pensions secretary Stephen Crabb said on Monday that cabinet ministers who do not support the government’s public sector pay policy should resign.

Mixed messages

“I don’t think it’s a great sight seeing different cabinet ministers giving slightly different messages to the media. My own personal preference is that people should be direct and upfront. If they want to take a position that is different from that of the official government line, then they should not be in the cabinet,” he told the BBC.

“Until we get to the point when specific decisions are being made, I do think that if you are in the cabinet, if you are taking the government’s shilling, then you need to stick rigidly to the government line.”

Lifting the 1 per cent cap on public sector pay rises would cost billions of pounds and blow a hole in chancellor of the exchequer Philip Hammond’s ambition to eliminate the deficit by 2025. Mr Johnson and Mr Gove, who played leading roles in the Leave campaign last year but fell out bitterly during the Conservative leadership election, claim that bigger pay rises are possible without raising taxes.

Former chancellor Norman Lamont accused Mr Johnson and Mr Gove of ganging up on the chancellor, adding that austerity was just another word for living within your means.

“I think it is not right for cabinet ministers to gang up on the chancellor in this way. I think it is making his position, which is always very difficult, very, very awkward indeed,” he said.

“People are talking about austerity as though it were an issue of too many repeats on television or they had got tired of watching Poldark and wanted a better programme. This is not a choice. It is unavoidable that we have restraint on public spending.”