Lib Dems claim Tories want rail strike to keep its activists away from by-election

Lib Dems claim Tories want rail strike to keep its activists away from by-election
By-election falls on date of rail strike and could cause logistical difficulties

The Liberal Democrats have accused the government of “sitting on its hands” and letting a looming national rail strike go ahead – to keep their activists away from a crucial by-election.

In a letter to Grant Shapps Sarah Olney, the party’s transport secretary accused ministers of “playing games with people’s lives” to “help save” Boris Johnson.

The Conservatives are facing a crucial by-election test in Tiverton and Honiton after the resignation of Tory MP Neil Parish, who quit after admitting to watching pornography at work.

Despite a thumping 24,339 vote majority at the last election the party is worried about losing the seat to the Lib Dems, who believe they are now “neck and neck” amid disgust at Mr Johnson’s government.

A defeat at the by-election would be a further blow for the PM, who has already suffered a bruising no-confidence vote from his own MPs in Wesminster.

The opposition liberals have been flooding the seat with activists in a bid to embarrass Mr Johnson on election day but say they are facing logistical difficulties because of looming rail strikes.

The Lib Dems claim the Tories have a vested interest in letting the strike go ahead and that refusing to meet workers’ pay offers and avert industrial action.

“It is becoming clearer by the day why you have chosen to let these strikes go ahead,” Ms Olney said in a letter to the transport secretary.

“This is part of a cynical and desperate political game by the Conservative party to help Boris Johnson win next week’s crucial by-elections, despite the devastating blow no rail services will have on tourism in areas such as the South West.”

She added that the strike will “result in volunteers not being able to attend the by-election in Devon”, branding it “a new low for the Conservative party”.

Mr Shapps has yet to respond to the letter. A Department for Transport spokesperson said the claim was “completely untrue”.

The Lib Dems also pointed to a Tory motion in parliament condemning the strikes, which they say amounts to a political trap for Labour and more political game-playing over the dispute.

It comes as the one of the leaders of the RMT rail union said that most of the public understood why it has launched a series of rail strikes.

Eddie Dempsey, senior assistant general secretary, said the union was still deep in talks to agree a settlement to avert three days of strikes next week.

“I think a lot of the public will understand the reasons why we’re in dispute, even if they will be frustrated at some of the disruption to strikes will cause because wages have been falling for 30 years in this country,” he told broadcaster GB News.

“They’ve rarely kept up with inflation and…they see in millions of taxpayers money come into our industry, and then leave in the form of profits and going off to tax havens.

“And it seems that the government is content for our money to be spent in that way but it is not content in seeing railway workers have a fair settlement on pay and some job security.”

He added: “I think people will be frustrated, those of us who experience some disruption, but I think most people in the country will understand the reasons for this dispute.”

The Tiverton and Honiton by-election is due to take place on 23 June, the same day as the Wakefield by-election in Yorkshire. The strike will take place on tuesday 21 June, Thursday 23 June and Saturday 25 June. The disruption is expected be felt throughout the week due to knock-on effects.

Workers on Network Rail and 13 train companies are taking part, in a bid to safeguard their rates of pay and job losses during the looming cost of living crisis.

At the last election Labour came second in Tiverton and Honiton with the Lib Dems third, but ex Labour minister Ben Bradshaw last month appeared to suggest the Lib Dems had a better chance this time.

“What some Labour members and activists don’t always appreciate is that a lot of Conservative voters, if they want to give the government a kicking will vote Liberal Democrat but they wouldn’t vote Labour,” he told the BBC.

“So if we have a joint purpose of wanting to send the prime minister a message and ultimately defeat this government in a general election then I think there are very good prospects of a Lib Dem victory there.”