Business Secretary Vince Cable has been accused of "blind complacency" in ensuring the Royal Mail's services remain safe in a sale that critics have branded an "utterly reckless gamble".
Speaking in a packed House of Commons today, Cable said the government was set on getting the Royal Mail onto the London Stock Exchange “this financial year”, with a potential £3bn valuation.
Despite receiving a stinging 96% opposition vote from postal workers, Cable said they would get a windfall of £2000 each, with 10% of the shares being given to them for free . The government would lose control of the 375 year-old postal operator and become just a minority shareholder, he told MPs.
Public opposition to the sale mounted yet further today after a poll was published showing that two-thirds of voters opposed the move. Cable took pains to make clear that Royal Mail would keep the Queen’s Head on its stamps and that any downgrade in its six-day-a-week “universal service obligation” would not happen as it would require a change of law.
However, critics warned that financial pressures on the delivery service could easily lead to the Royal Mail’s legal obligation to maintain its services collapsing. Mario Dunn, from the Save Our Royal Mail, told the Huffington Post UK that Cable was guilty of “blind complacency” as “he won’t be around years after when the Royal Mail has to ask for a change in the law to keeps service financially workable”.
Indeed, Cable seemed to admit this himself when grilled by Labour's Alan Johnson, saying "there is no magic wand" to "turn loss-making [areas] into profit-making [ones]".
LibDem MP Stephen Lloyd, who is an aide to Cable, refused to deny that financial pressures could compromise the Royal Mail's scope for making deliveries when speaking to the Huffington Post UK. He dismissed the scenario as a "hypothetical".
"No-one can guarantee that come what may everything will remain hunky-dory," he added. "If the Royal Mail had to ask for a change in the universal service obligation, it would be a hell of an ask".
Labour’s Shadow Business Secretary Chuka Umunna said the sale of the Royal Mail, which last year posted over £440m in profit last year, would mean it was “sold off for a fast buck”. He accused the coalition failing to “adequately justify why it must sell now” and warned that the postal service would suffer as local offices close and are replaced by “distant depots”.
Postal workers rallied against the move outside Parliament while Cable made his announcement. George Thompson, head of the National Federation of SubPostmasters, accused the government of taking an "utterly reckless gamble with the future of the UK's post office network".
“The thousands of businesses and communities across the UK which depend on their local post office to provide essential services will suffer as a direct result," he added.
Before Cable’s statement, Prime Minister David Cameron told MPs at Prime Minister’s Questions that the privatization process enjoyed “widespread support around the country”, which is sorely disproved by new research.
Over two thirds of the public that were aware of the plans said they were against the proposals, according to a poll by the Bow Group, a Conservative-supporting thinktank.
Only 53% were even aware of the plans, which is unsurprising given the government’s decision to avoid a publicity campaign for this move like in 1980’s “Tell Sid” privatization of British Gas.
The Prime Minister is even facing fierce opposition in his own party, with 48% of Tories saying they opposed the proposals while only 40% supported it. Such Tory rifts have caused grassroots Tories to call on Cameron to backtrack on part-privatising the Royal Mail.
Ben Harris-Quinney, director of Conservative Grassroots and Bow Group chairman, told the Huffington Post UK that ministers had failed to carry the wider public with them.
“Cameron is on a collision course with his members. The Post Office relies for most of its business from the Royal Mail. If that declines, you’ll see closures of post offices.
Harris-Quinney said the Tories had not included the proposals in their 2010 election manifesto and merely “talked about an exploration”. He warned that the rural areas would be worst hit and “we’ll lose votes, especially in the Shires”.
“There hasn’t been adequate public consultation,” he said. “They should not have made this announcement today.”
The Tories refused to comment on the Bow Group's poll when approached by the Huffington Post. However, the Tory ill-feeling was felt by business minister Michael Fallon a few years ago, who wrote to constituents in 2009 opposing the privatization of the Royal Mail.
Two Tory MPs, Daniel Kawczynski and Edward Timpson, both voiced their opposition against Royal Mail privatization in 2009. However, when the Huffington Post UK tried to contact them, Timpson’s office declined to comment, while Kawczynski was unavailable.