Senior Tory MP urges government to ‘get around negotiating table’
Grant Shapps has dismissed growing calls for the government to get involved in talks over rail strikes as a “stunt”, amid growing tensions over the biggest industrial action on the network in decades.
Condemning the industrial action set to take place this week, the transport secretary warned the country’s biggest rail union it would be a “huge act of self-harm”, and claimed they had been “gunning” for action.
He also suggested freight services could be reduced to 50 per cent of normal levels due to the disruption expected by the strikes at Network Rail and 13 other train operators on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.
The transport secretary’s remarks came after the Rail, Maritime and Transport Union (RMT) confirmed over the weekend the strikes would go ahead after the failure to resolve a bitter dispute over workers’ conditions.
Despite the government facing calls to intervene to prevent the strikes — including from a senior Tory MP — Mr Shapps said: “The trade unions know that only the trade union and the employer can settle this. I will not cut across that.”
Speaking on Sky News’s Sophy Ridge programme, he claimed: “This is a stunt at the 11th hour by the union, suddenly coming forward and saying ‘we need to negotiate with the government now’ even though this last month they told me they wouldn’t be seen dead negotiating with the government”.
“I think it is a huge act of self-harm to go on strike at the moment,” the cabinet minister added. “I don’t believe the workers are anywhere as militant as their unions who are leading them up the garden path. They are gunning for this strike. It is completely unnecessary.”
But the Tory MP Jake Berry, the chair of the influential Northern Research Group (NRG) of backbench Conservatives, urged the government and all parties to “get around the table” and prevent the “huge negative impact” of strike action.
He told Times Radio: “What’s the alternative? The only way this will be sorted out is by people sitting down with, I don’t know, cold beer and sandwiches. I don’t know if they still do that anymore. But sitting down and sorting this out.”
She said: “During the pandemic they [the government] took the right to negotiate back from train operating companies, so they’re the only people who can resolve this and yet they’re not prepared to.
“The biggest problem that this country has is not militant workers, it’s a militant government”.
Mick Lynch, the general secretary of RMT, stressed the the union had no choice but to act after the train operators had still not made a pay offer when talks adjourned on Thursday.
“What else are we to do? Are we to plead? Are we to beg? We want to bargain for our futures. We want to negotiate,” he told Sky News.
In an escalation of tensions, Mr Lynch also accused the transport secretary of an “entire fabrication” over claims about the union’s attendance at negotiations over rail strikes.
Minutes earlier, Mr Shapps said his “big complaint” was that on Saturday Mr Lynch and the RMT “walked out” of talks and instead attended a cost-of-living crisis organised by the Trade Union Congress (TUC).
But Mr Lynch hit back: “We’re available to negotiate, this nonsense that we didn’t attend negotiations yesterday, which Grant Shapps has said, is an entire fabrication.
“We left Network Rail on Friday night at around half past seven and they said to us, ‘we are prepared to meet you on Sunday’.
“They never mentioned any negotiations on Saturday because they were going to speak to the Department for Transport about what they might be able to discuss with us.
“He’s making it up, what he’s saying is untrue, we didn’t attend a rally instead of negotiations. There were no negotiations scheduled and the train operating companies have not spoken to me or any of my officials since Thursday at lunchtime.”