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Test of Strength

Test of Strength

nurse strike

There’s a lot happening this week, and the outcomes are anyone’s guess. The Prime Minister might be starting to break the deadlock over public sector pay, and he’s challenging hardliners to accept his Northern Ireland trade deal. Success in either or both would crown him in glory, but as our Political Correspondent Peter Spencer reports, the reverse is also true.

Rishi Sunak is anything but a gambling man, but he is taking a few chances just now. And the stakes could hardly be higher.

Though the improved pay deal for nurses may just be enough, the offer of extra cash leaves the government open to accusations that it’s caved in to strikers.

It also begs the question – if the money actually is available, wouldn’t it have been smarter to head off the problem by shelling it out months ago?

In addition, as pay talks with other unions get under way, the jury’s out over whether ministers are playing a canny divide-and-rule game, or simply floundering.

As for Northern Ireland, by contrast, Sunak definitely has, to borrow from Lady Macbeth, screwed his courage to the sticking place.

While doubters on both sides of the Irish Sea continue to huff, puff and harrumph he’s putting his grandly-titled Windsor Framework to a vote in the commons.

It’ll get through, thanks to Labour’s promised backing. But the exercise could seriously put the backs up of the Democratic Unionists.

And, if they respond by refusing to re-enter government at Stormont, then Sunak might end up having done more harm than good.

On the other hand, if they do end up supporting his deal, however begrudgingly, it’ll be win-win for everyone.

The people of Northern Ireland, for a start. After a year of hobbled administration they’ll suddenly find everything running more smoothly.

Businesses also will be chuffed, as trade with mainland Britain will be far more straightforward.

But the biggest bonus for us all will come in the form of a round of applause from the US president.

Joe Biden, who’s very proud of his Irish roots, may well look more favourably on a nice, juicy Anglo-American trade deal.

Even the hardcore Brexiteers who’re suspicious of Sunak’s deal, because they think it makes too many concessions to Brussels, can hardly balk at that prospect.

However, the Prime Minister will be far from out of the woods even if that prize does fall into his lap, thanks to the sticky problem presented by his deputy.

It’s not yet clear exactly when, but the findings of an inquiry into multiple allegations of bullying by Dominic Raab could well be made public this week.

The senior lawyer in charge of the investigation insists his brief is only to examine and report on the facts, not choose the punishment. In short, he’s the jury, not the judge.

That’ll be Sunak then.

And it’ll be a tough call, because while the verdict is still awaited, the weight of evidence against Raab is damning.

Sky News last week published its own findings, based on a series of interviews with current and former workmates, which paint a deeply unsavoury picture.

They alleged he regularly reduced staff to tears, and, to quote one, ‘ruined people’s lives’.

Also, one claimed, he was perfectly charming and affable with important folk, like the Prime Minister, and perfectly horrid to mere underlings.

But while Sunak will have act on that lot when it becomes official, he’s not going there in the case of his predecessor but one.

The long long-awaited public hearings finally get under way this week into whether Boris Johnson told partygate porkies.

Already the committee in question has issued an interim report saying in effect it doesn’t half look like it.

And while we all know Bozza’s an ace at soaring rhetoric and sweeping generalisations, he’s not quite so hot on the receiving end of forensic examination.

So the possibility that the outcome will eventually cost him his parliamentary career is very real.

No wonder Sunak is keeping well away.

Doubtless he accepts, to adapt Oscar Wilde this time, that to lose one colleague may be regarded as a misfortune, to lose two looks like carelessness.

More to the point, perhaps, plenty of Tories still hold a candle for Johnson – and lay much of the blame for his downfall at Sunak’s door.

That’s the last thing he needs, just as his party’s finally making a teeny bit of headway in the polls.

A YouGov survey for the Times last week showed them below twenty points behind Labour for the first time in a very long time.

Just one point below, mind, so if he’s trying to chart a course back to victory it’d be better, as the old Irish joke goes, if he didn’t start from here.

Also, though last week’s budget didn’t cause the widely anticipated ructions from Tory right wingers who hate all taxes, it didn’t go down a storm with the voters.

In fact, that same poll suggested fewer than one in ten of us expect the contents of the Chancellor’s red box to leave them better off.

Yes, the idea copied and pasted from Labour policy, of free childcare for all children up to four years old, was a big hit.

But, on Jeremy Hunt’s own admission it’s also a big deal. So much so that so many more premises and childminders will be needed that it won’t be up and running until 2025.

Then there’s the wheeze of taking the lid off the tax-free amount people can put aside for their pensions.

The idea, Hunt explained, was to encourage doctors not to exacerbate NHS staff shortages by retiring early.

However, now that Labour has pledged to scrap it, on the grounds that it’s just a bung to the rich, there’s a danger that doctors will speedily get out while the going’s good.

Not for the first time, a budget that looks ok at first glance starts to look a lot less so a few days down the line.

So, even though Tory apparatchiks may be feeling marginally less gloomy than they were, they’re nowhere near the ‘full gloat’ that John Major once awarded himself.

That was thirty years ago, after he’d seen off a challenge from, er, Tory Eurosceptics.

‘Autre jour, même merde ?’ And the rest.

But it seems some things really do never change. Not ever.

Boffins at Warwick and Birmingham unis have been checking out what great apes get up to to cheer themselves up and manipulate their perception of reality.

Not too hard for humans, as we have access to drink and drugs, more so for gorillas and chimpanzees.

But what the researchers clocked was that they sort of self-medicate – by deliberately spinning round and round to make themselves dizzy.

And, says the study’s co-leader Dr Adriano Lameira: ‘The parallel between what the apes were doing and what humans do was beyond coincidental.’

A useful tip, surely, for any politician looking to jolly people along and confuse them about what is and isn’t real.

Just call in a doctor. In this case, a spin doctor.

Watch Peter’s report HERE

Peter Spencer has 40 years experience as a Political Correspondent in Westminster, working with London Broadcasting and Sky News. For more of his fascinating musings on the turbulent political landscape, follow him on Facebook & Twitter.

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