Public sector pay: Will they or won't they?

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Will they or won't they?

As we've been reporting in the last few days, there's been a frenzied guessing game, stoked by some cabinet ministers themselves, over the future for the pay of nurses, teachers, police officers, and the rest of the five million or so people who work in the public sector.

In the aftermath of the election, some in cabinet argue that scrapping the pay cap would be a way of showing they had heard the electorate's call, proof they had listened to public concerns. No politician, not least one clinging on in a minority government, wants to appear deaf to the concerns of the public.

One senior figure arguing for a relaxation of the cap argues that the Tories have to get out in front of the issue, to neutralise it, before what could be a long, hot summer of political discontent, claiming that Cabinet is moving towards a consensus position to "scrap the cap", at least showing willing to accept the recommendations of the independent pay bodies as they report over the coming months.

But after a majority-losing election where the Tories ditched their core script on sound money, others are in a very different position.

One minister said, it would be "utter madness" to ditch a central part of their economic programme, their "record for stewardship", questioning whether an "utterly useless" election campaign should result in junking the economic discipline the government should be proud of.

Another questioned "the idea you can just walk away from the cap without serious consequences".

Yes, sticking to the cap causes the Tories political damage, but so might raising taxes, or making cuts somewhere else to do it.

Arguably the simpler part of the debate has been had - many public sector workers are feeling the pinch, and there is more and more pressure to remove the limit on pay rises. The more complicated bit, who or what would pay for the increase, is a conversation that's yet to happen.

Whatever Boris Johnson and Michael Gove have said in the last twenty four hours, don't expect anything to happen in a hurry. The first pay review body is not due to report for another few weeks. It seems unlikely that the government will announce any plan to either ditch the cap or promise to accept the decisions of the review bodies before then.

It's not in either Theresa May or Philip Hammond's DNA to make quick decisions. One of her allies reports there is simply no decision. But how they show they are in tune with volatile public opinion while going through a decision making process is not straightforward either.

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