Theresa May has suffered fresh humiliation over public sector pay after the House of Commons unanimously agreed to give NHS workers “a fair pay rise”.
The Prime Minister was accused of “running scared” from the issue as the Government refused to oppose a Labour motion demanding an end to the 1% cap on wages in the health service.
May herself was absent and decided not to put the issue to a vote after the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) had signalled it would back the Opposition Day motion.
Labour claimed victory after even the PM’s DUP allies had earlier decided to support their call for an end to the pay freeze for nurses, midwives, doctors and other staff.
In a major shift, Tory sources told HuffPost UK that the party’s MPs would not oppose any future non-binding Opposition Day motions for the rest of the Parliament.
With May’s focus on delivering Brexit, Conservative MPs will not be whipped on anything other than Government legislation. A Labour motion opposing tuition fee rises is also expected to be unopposed.
Staring down the barrel of her first Commons defeat since she took the reins at Downing Street last year, May decided instead to avoid a damaging vote altogether.
As surprised MPs took in the decision, Shadow Health Secretary Jonathan Ashworth said: “Is it not clear that the House has been unanimous in saying we should end the pay cap in the NHS?
“And is it also not clear that the reason the Government did not divide on this motion is they knew they would lose?”
Earlier, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt had signalled he was sympathetic to pay rises to help retain and recruit health staff, while stressing he wanted “flexible working”.
The Cabinet agreed on Tuesday to end the Tories’ seven-year pay freeze, giving police and prison officers 2% and 1.7% rises respectively.
But as unions condemned the increases as “pathetic”, the Government refused to say whether other public sector workers would also get similar rises.
May faced a fresh backlash when she claimed at Prime Minister’s Question time that police had received a 32% pay rise since 2010, when tax cuts and pay ‘progression’ was taken into account.
Ashworth told HuffPost UK: “Theresa May and the Tories are running scared. They know they don’t have the votes and her MPs know that they are on the wrong side of the issue.
“The Prime Minister is in office but not in power.”
The DUP’s “confidence and supply” deal with the Conservatives covers only a Queen’s Speech and Budgets, and allows the Northern Ireland party to vote how it likes on issues such as the NHS, Tory sources stressed.
With late-night, knife-edge votes expected to become a regular event, Government whips want to reassure their backbenchers that they support will only be expected on crunch issues rather than non-binding motions seen as ‘stunts’.
They added that the party had decided not to fall into Labour’s ‘trap’, not least because the last time it voted against a similar Opposition Day debate it was accused of opposing higher pay for public sector workers.
During the Commons debate, Karen Lee, a former nurse and Labour MP for Lincoln, revealed that a former colleague had told her: “You can earn more at Lidl than I get”.
Janet Davies, General Secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, said: “The Government saw the strength of opposition and backed away to avoid defeat.
“Despite this, the pay cap sadly remains in place tonight. The Government failed to take the opportunity to scrap it explicitly.”