Nurses Pay May Be Just The Start Of Boris Johnson’s ‘Women Problem’ This Spring

Labour presses that NHS 1%, but the Budget and pandemic have laid bare deeper issues.
Boris Johnson during Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons
Boris Johnson during Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons
UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor/PA Wire

If PMQs told us anything, it was that both Keir Starmer and Boris Johnson realise just how politically toxic it would be if nurses really do get a 1% pay rise. The Labour leader used all six of his questions on the topic, ramming home his new soundbite “the mask really is slipping” from the Tories’ claims to be the party of the NHS. No wonder his local election campaign on Thursday will have the slogan “a vote for Labour is a vote to support our nurses”.

Starmer is smart enough to know too that he will become Captain Foresight if the PM is indeed forced to U-turn on the pay offer. And in the most interesting bit of the exchanges, Johnson hinted strongly at that change of tack, saying: “Of course, we will look at what the independent pay review body has to say, exceptionally, about the nursing profession, whom we particularly value.”

The PM clearly needs a better briefing team, because his main riposte to Starmer actually made things much worse. Claiming that Labour had voted against a 2.1% pay rise was just untrue, as Jonathan Ashworth pointed out to the Speaker straight afterwards. The Speaker accepted the “clarification” but gave no ruling on whether the PM should return to correct the record.

In the subsequent Lobby briefing, Johnson’s press secretary Allegra Stratton dug a deeper hole by refusing to confirm her boss had been wrong. In an unedifying game of ‘Twenty Questions’, she refused twenty times to admit the untruth. Stratton managed to surpass even Michael Howard’s record of obfuscation deployed way back in 1997, with his non-answers to Jeremy Paxman’s infamous 12 times table of ‘did you threaten to overrule him?’

Of course, most nurses are women and given the PM’s “women problem” (not least in the lack of women in Cabinet, which Stratton told us this week would be addressed in the next reshuffle), it’s all the more politically damaging if he lets this row rumble on for months. The wider lack of female ministers at the No.10 press briefings over the past year has already been painfully obvious.

In fact, the whole issue of the plight of women in the pandemic, and in the PM’s “levelling up” agenda, was highlighted during a session of the Treasury Select Committee on Wednesday. And Rishi Sunak as well as Johnson was in the firing line. Economist Susan Himmelweit, from the Women’s Budget Group, said that the chancellor had “a very blokey idea” of what counted as investment in the economy.

Himmelweit said the Budget’s super-deduction tax break had “clear male bias”, mainly because it relied on infrastructure projects that employed mostly men. Her group had calculated that in fact if the same public money was spent on care services as construction, 2.7 times more people would be employed. She added that social care and childcare had been exposed as woefully underfunded these past 12 months. A quarter of childcare providers believe they’ll close within a year, many concentrated in the poorer areas of the country, she added.

Women have been disproportionately hit during the pandemic, with three quarters saying their earnings or hours were cut during the year due to being unable to access enough childcare. Many have taken the burden of homeschooling and domestic tasks too. Of mothers made redundant, 46% have said that a lack of childcare was a factor in them being selected. The Budget’s planned cuts to public services will hit women more than men too.

New ONS analysis on Wednesday showed that in the second lockdown, women spent 99% more time than men on unpaid childcare (compared to 55% more in the first lockdown), were significantly less likely than men to work from home and were more likely to be furloughed.

In his own evidence the MPs, the Resolution Foundation’s Torsten Bell added that while there were more women on Universal Credit or working tax credit than men (4m to 3.3m), it was striking that it took the phenomenon of men flooding onto UC to suddenly force a £20 uplift. An uplift denied to women for the previous four years. Furlough itself didn’t initially apply to part-time work, an omission that affected many women.

Add in the soaring domestic violence of the past year, and the insufficient funding for women’s refuges in the Budget (they got an extra £19m compared to the £393m Women’s Aid says they need) looks inadequate indeed. The Lords inflicted defeats on the government on Wednesday to strengthen its Domestic Abuse Bill. The tragic murder of Sarah Everard, and the response of so many women saying how often they feel unsafe on the street, has brought home once more the violence and death faced by women on a daily basis.

It was International Women’s Day on Monday. Whether it’s the pay worries of nurses, the job losses from poor childcare or even that long neglected pledge to reform social care, we’re still a long way from every day being women’s day in Downing Street.


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