Grant Shapps attacks train strike ‘stunt’ and claims not ‘one in million’ chance he could have stopped it

Transport secretary accuses Sky News host Kay Burley of ‘falling’ for union spin in heated exchange

Related video: Rail strikes will cause 'chaos and misery, says Grant Shapps

Transport secretary Grant Shapps dismissed the idea of ministers talking the unions over rail strikes – saying there was not even a “one in a million” chance he could have helped prevent disruption.

The minister said there was “nothing we can do” to stop Britain’s biggest rail strike in 30 years, which kicked off on Tuesday morning when tens of thousands of staff walked out in a dispute over pay and jobs.

Under fire for failing to intervene in talks, Mr Shapps insisted that ministerial engagement would have “made no difference” other than providing “a bit of theatre”.

He told Sky News on Tuesday: “If I thought there was even a one in a million chance that my being in the room helped, then I’d be there,” before adding that his presence at talks “wouldn’t work out too well”.

Mr Shapps said ministers had not been involved in rail talks “since the 1970s” when deals were agreed between the then-Labour PM and unions over “beer and sandwiches”.

In a heated exchange with Sky News host Kay Burley, Mr Shapps accused her of “falling” for a Labour and union “stunt” on the idea he failed to engage in talks.

“I understand you want us to go back to beer and sandwiches in the 1970s,” the minister told the presenter, before adding: “This is a stunt by Labour and the unions that’s you’re falling for.”

Mr Shapps also said union leader and the rail companies were “the ones with the technical details and “the mandate” for negotiations, which failed to reach a last-minute compromise on Monday.

The transport secretary vowed to “push on” with changes the law aimed at limiting rail union power by requiring a minimum level of service to be run and enable the use of agency workers. “We are going to ensure that the law is firmly on the passengers’ side,” he said.

Asked whether the planned legislation would allow the hiring of strike-breaking agency staff, Mr Shapps told LBC: “Technically, it could, but I think it’s unlikely. In most cases, that would happen because a lot of the jobs are extremely technical ... It is more about transferable skills than it is about the agency.”

RMT general secretary Mick Lynch has accused Grant Shapps of “spouting nonsense” with plans to allow agency staff to replace striking workers.

The union chief also warned that the dispute could continue for months, adding: “It is clear that the Tory government, after slashing £4 billion of funding from National Rail and Transport for London, has now actively prevented a settlement to this dispute.”

The RMT pulled the plug on last-ditch talks with employers on Monday, rejecting a maximum pay rise of 3%. The union also blamed ministers for stopping Network Rail and train operating companies from negotiating freely on pay, jobs and conditions.

But the Department for Transport dismissed the claim as “absolutely not true” – and insisted that a £2bn shortfall in resources for the national network that the RMT attributed to government cuts was down to Covid.

Mr Shapps has accused RMT leader Mick Lynch of wanting to transform himself into one of the “1970s union barons”.

He told LBC radio on Tuesday: “I can see what’s happening here, their leader says he is nostalgic for the days of union powers and he’s determined to turn himself back into one of those 1970s union barons.”

Meanwhile, unions reacted with fury to reports Labour has banned its frontbenchers from picket lines, in a memo leaked to PoliticsHome.

Sharon Graham, general secretary of Unite, said: “The Labour Party was founded by the trade unions and we expect Labour MPs to defend workers, by words and by actions.”

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