Deputy PM Oliver Dowden’s message to rail unions: ‘Don’t take us for fools’

Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden at his office in Whitehall (Matt Writtle)
Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden at his office in Whitehall (Matt Writtle)

Britain’s Deputy Prime Minister on Friday told rail workers set to inflict more strike misery on London and across the train network that their “jobs are on the line”.

In a forthright intervention, Oliver Dowden warned them, and the rail unions, that they should not take “Londoners and commuters for fools” as they could be pushed into “permanently adapting away from using the railways on a routine basis”.

This could plunge the rail industry into decline with the walkout days, already tipping London’s economy into the “doldrums”, threatening to undermine the capital as a “really top global city” if the industrial action is sustained longer term.

In an interview with the Standard ahead of the Tory annual rally in Manchester which starts on Sunday, Mr Dowden also:

* Pushed the next election choice as between “energetic Sunak and staid Starmer”.

* Appealed to Tory voters considering switching to the Liberal Democrats in the southern Blue Wall seats by arguing it would mean Sir Keir as PM and higher taxes.

* Told how the Tories will go on the offensive to gain some seats in London and its commuter belt, including in Enfield and St Albans.

* Denied a US presidential election coinciding with a British general election could destabilise the West amid the Ukraine war arguing that “strong, robust democratic institutions”, including elections, were a strength.

* Told how as the minister overseeing Whitehall’s emergency Cobra system, his biggest strike worry was the combined walkouts by consultants and junior doctors which created a “dangerous” situation in the NHS.

* Backed Susan Hall as the Tory candidate for Mayor of London despite her liking a tweet quoting Enoch Powell.

Members of the Aslef train drivers’ union are set to strike over pay and other issues on Saturday and Wednesday, hitting the Tory conference, with an overtime ban today and from Monday to Friday.

“It’s worth remembering they get 60 grand for four days a week,” said Mr Dowden. “Our offer takes them to 65 grand and they shouldn’t be taking Londoners and commuters for fools because I certainly see in my own constituency that lots of commuters just shrug their shoulders and work from home for another day and they’re doing real long term damage to the railways.

“They’re putting their own jobs on the line. If they’re not careful, Londoners are going to permanently adapt and certainly commuters are going to permanently adapt away from using the railways on a routine basis.”

Mr Dowden represented Britain last week at the United Nations general assembly, also addressing the security council, in New York.

He emphasised the competition facing London’s economy from cities such as New York, Singapore and Dubai. Doubling down on criticism of the rail strikes, into their 18th month, and Ulez expansion to outer London, he added: “You look around the world, other capitals aren’t standing still. They’re driving forward, making themselves more attractive destinations for people, for tourists, to set up business, to live and work. We need a dynamism about the London economy because there’s no option in which we can stand still.

“London will always be a great city but we can’t take it for granted that London is always going to be a really top global city.”

As he dwelled on the capital’s history, Mr Dowden, who is also Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, is watched over near his desk by portraits of past office-holders including Geoffrey Chaucer, who was Port of London comptroller of customs in the 14th century. “And so it is in politics, dear brother, Each for himself alone, there is no other,” Chaucer wrote in The Canterbury Tales.

With some Cabinet ministers already appearing to be manoeuvring for a post-election Tory leadership contest, the words are apt centuries later, though, Mr Dowden, a team player, strongly defends Mr Sunak.

His outspokenness, though, dried up when asked about HS2, with the premier and Jeremy Hunt hit by a ferocious backlash including from Boris Johnson, other senior Tories, regional mayors over suggestions they may scale back the high speed rail project.

“As you’d expect from time to time, the Prime Minister and Chancellor review infrastructure projects and see whether they deliver value for money and there’s nothing more I can say than that,” he said.

But the PM now appears to be seeking to shape election battlelines, including with his controversial changes to net zero plans. “The very strong sense I get is people want change. Labour just want to say you’ll get the change by changing government,” said Mr Dowden.

“People want more fundamental change than that, they want to change from what we’ve seen under successive governments, of putting short-term political interests ahead of the long-term interests of the country.” The Government has itself been accused of doing exactly this by watering down net zero actions including delaying the ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars to 2035.

Mr Dowden, 45, argued these changes were needed to maintain public support to tackle global warming and continued: “Rishi Sunak is somebody who works hard, gets into the detail of stuff, he analyses problems and he’s taking the right decisions for the long term of the country. There’s quite a contrast between that fresh energy from him and staid Keir Starmer.”

Mr Dowden said Brexiteer Ms Hall, pictured below, was “an excellent candidate” for Mayor despite rows over her commentaries on social media. “She’s a refreshing change, a straightforward, honest candidate,” he said.

On foreign affairs, he said Britain now had “a genuine post-Brexit relationship with the EU” after the tumultuous Truss and Johnson years and denied the UK’s global standing was diminished.

“What I got a lot (from his New York meetings) was respect for the leadership the UK has shown in defence of European freedom and security, in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the steadfastness we’ve shown,” he said.

Back in Britain, Mr Dowden said his biggest strikes worry as Cobra minister was the impact on the NHS of stoppages by junior doctors and consultants on the same days to press their campaign for better pay. “We’re running the system very, very close to the edge, when we have both the doctors and the consultants strike. It is dangerous and they shouldn’t be doing it.”