Tory MPs are very pleased that Number 10 is once again dropping hints that the public sector pay cap will be lifted in the autumn budget. A number of them had spent the summer being chided by nurses and police officers in their constituencies about the discrepancy between MPs’ pay and the eight-year freeze on pay for public sector workers.
But this is of course just the first in a long line of successful policy changes that Tories are going to extract from the Treasury as a result of the snap election. Ironically for Philip Hammond, who got into hot water after telling Cabinet that even women can drive trains, the new pressure point is the railways.
Senior Conservatives are very aware that they have not got the balance right on transport infrastructure in the North, having cheesed off commuters on the packed and ageing trains between Manchester and Leeds and other busy lines by cancelling electrification of key routes just days before backing another £31bn Crossrail line for London. These decisions highlighted the way in which Labour in its devolved roles can make more of a noise than the party in Westminster, with Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram protesting noisily about this being a sign that the Northern Powerhouse is a sham.
When he announced that he was cancelling three electrification projects, Transport Secretary Chris Grayling insisted that bi-mode locomotives, which can switch between electric and diesel, were a ‘smarter’ way of upgrading the lines. He later argued in an opinion piece in the Yorkshire Post that the government was not neglecting the North in terms of investment in infrastructure, and that ‘what’s just as important is the North stepping up to shape its own transport destiny’ because ‘it is not up to central government to grasp these opportunities’.
This didn’t exactly pour oil on troubled waters with council leaders in the affected areas. Yesterday Hammond held meetings with Burnham, Rotheram and Tees Valley mayor Ben Houchen, but the mayors emerged from the meeting saying they still hadn’t received assurances on investment.
Tory MPs in northern seats are also rumbling about the perceived imbalance, and that’s why those around Theresa May are very aware that they need to announce plans soon that redress the balance.