The Stage Is Set For A Westminster Battle Over The Survival Of The “Pret Economy”
Pret a Manger recently announced it was cutting 2,900 jobs in the UK (PA)
On Tuesday, the Prime Minister assured his Cabinet that “people are going back to the office in huge numbers across our country.”
The evidence doesn’t appear to back him up. According to Transport for London, there was just an 8% week-on-week rise in Tube usage, with passenger numbers still 72% below pre-Covid levels. And, though the Office for National Statistics reports the home working is falling, it still found that just 57% of workers commuted to work last week.
This seismic cultural change is already having a tangible effect on the lives of workers. City-centre staples Pret A Manger and Costa Coffee have announced they are eliminating close to 5,000 jobs between them due to falling footfall. Online shopping giant Amazon, however, said it was creating 7,000 new roles within the next year.
As a result, a divide is forming within Westminster: should the government do more to get people back into offices or try to work with the ‘new normal’?
Given the make-up of the 2019 parliamentary intake, The battle between back-to-the-office “hawks” and those who want to see the economy rebalanced could become the major battle of the electoral cycle.
On the one hand, many parliamentarians hope that getting workers at their desks will reverse this trend and avert a potential crisis of unemployment.
“It's all about trying to get back to some sort of normality,” one Tory MP told PoliticsHome. “I know there's going to be a new normal, as they keep saying, but we need to get as close as we possibly can to what it was before. Because, at the end of the day, we all depend on our economy and our town centres and our high streets doing well.”
Ostensibly, this is the government’s side of the argument. Yet its efforts to put that forward have been repeatedly undermined by its own example: commentators have noted for weeks that many of its own civil servants have not returned to the office.
Another Conservative backbencher found this infuriating: “The government’s one of the worst culprits,” the MP said. “None of the civil servants are coming back to work. I’ve been told by some civil servants that they’re not coming back until January.”
And now there is already a clash with the unions over the government’s efforts to return the civil service to offices; one which doesn’t look like it will be resolved any time soon.
None of the civil servants are coming back to work. I’ve been told by some civil servants that they’re not coming back until January.
A major part of the problem is a simple question of logistics: According to the Telegraph, plans for a media blitz aimed at encouraging people back into work were postponed this week, amid concerns that the government’s social distancing guidelines weren’t compatible with a mass return to work.
“With Covid-safe guidelines it is not possible to use office space with the intensity that we used to use it, so it is not possible to bring lots of people back suddenly,” Alex Brazier, a financial policymaker at the Bank of England, told the Treasury Committee earlier this week.
“There are merits to working in an office when it comes to efficiency and collaboration and creativity, but because of those constraints I don't think we can expect to see a sudden and sharp return and return of people to very dense office environments.”
As a result, there is a growing school of thought among the backbenches and elsewhere in Whitehall that the government’s focus should in fact be on rebalancing the economy, rather than returning it to what it was.
This thinking is typified by a widely shared opinion piece by the Financial Times columnist Sarah O’Connor, who this week argued: “Britain’s economic geography was under strain even before coronavirus. Good-quality jobs had grown ever more concentrated in London and a few other big cities like Manchester. That didn’t work for the rest of the country, and it didn’t work particularly well for the city dwellers either.”
How might this play out in Whitehall? Some MPs predict that the debate could reignite tensions within the Government between those more concerned with the economic recovery, and those focused on public health.
“There’s going to be tensions between Health and the Treasury,” another Tory MP said. “The Treasury would ideally like things to get back to normal but even the Treasury’s got to realise if we go back to work faster we’ll have a second spike then the damage will be even worse.
“But, obviously, Matt Hancock is going to want to be ultra-cautious because success for him will be judged slightly differently.”
And they added that those opposed to the back to the work message felt ministers should “bend with the breeze”.
“Societal habits have changed, a seismic change, and it’s no good the Government sitting there trying to turn the tide back because I don't think it's going to happen.”
There’s going to be tensions between Health and the Treasury
Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Tom Tugendhat sits in the same camp. He agrees that ministers should be working with the current climate, rather than go against it.
“I want people to get back to work but what that means will be different to other people,” he told The House Live.
Tugendhat adds: “Many people have been looking for a rebalancing of life for a very long time. I’m always cautious about the Government telling people how to run their lives. There are 65 million people in the UK and the reason I’m a Conservative is because I don’t think Whitehall knows best.
“I think 65 million people know best about how to run their lives and it’s not for me to tell people how to do it.”
A Government source denied that there was any split between the departments over the issue, insisting that they were all “on the same page” about the return to work.
But there is precedent here: Tensions between DHSC and the Treasury have already flared up in April, over plans to relax lockdown.
The Sunday Times reported that a group of “hawks” including Rishi Sunak, as well as Gavin Willaimson, Alok Sharma and Liz Truss were behind a push to lift restrictions. Mr Hancock, however, was said to be “vocal” that his priority was protecting the NHS.
The Health Secretary also attracted scrutiny last week after he appeared to undermine the PM’s back to work plea when he claimed he had “absolutely no idea” how many of his staff were at their desks.
The reason I’m a Conservative is because I don’t think Whitehall knows best - Tom Tugendhat
"What I care about is how effectively people work, and obviously people should come back to the office if that is what they need to do their job,” he told Times Radio.
"And also, employers need to make sure the offices are Covid-secure, as we have obviously in the Department for Health, as you would fully expect us to."
"But what I care about is that people perform and so the people I work with, some of them have been working from home, some come in sometimes, some are full-time.”
Against this, however, there is pressure on the government from business leaders, who are arguing that the Government’s current messaging is not enough and that more must be done to persuade the public to return to a semblance of normality.
“While many businesses have been investing in making workplaces safer, we are unlikely to see significant growth in footfall while government advice remains to ‘work from home if you can,” said Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the British Retail Consortium.
“Unless this changes, more should be done to encourage people to travel and reassure them that public transport is safe.”
There are also other factors that could slow a mass return to cities. Boris Johnson confirmed on Wednesday that he was working with the rail industry on introducing flexible season tickets to “ensure better value and enable people to get back to work in an effective way”.
And, despite the reopening of schools, a survey of working mothers by the Trades Union Congress found that 41% claimed they were struggling with childcare. A separate survey last month by childcare.co.uk revealed that a third of centres expected to shut down, equating to the loss of 560,000 places.
Another MP said some within the party were frustrated at the London-centric approach of the back to work push.
They said: “Most of my constituents can't work from home because they’re in service sector jobs and are relatively low paid.
“We’ve got a much larger manufacturing sector than other parts of the country. You can't do manufacturing work from home. I think it's a bit more of a Shires and London problem.”
It remains to be seen how this growing ideological fault line will be resolved. For all the government’s public bombast over the need for a speedy return to the office, it may be that their hand is forced by the sheer gravity, and Britain is ushered into a new economic future.
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