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Tuesday, 12 June, 2001, 12:41 GMT 13:41 UK
Blair sparks pay row
Prime minister Tony Blair
Blair may soon be counting the cost of his pay rise
By BBC News Online political correspondent Nick Assinder

If timing is everything in politics, Tony Blair's decision to award himself a 50,000 pay rise three days after winning an election landslide will be seen by many as a severe misjudgement.

No matter how he and his ministers try to excuse the move, most voters will not buy it, and the image of pigs and troughs will stick.

What makes it even worse is the fact that it appeared the government was trying to sneak out the move when no one would notice.

Prime Minister Tony Blair
Blair promised more for nurses
And it came just as ministers were targeting the public services for wage restraint.

The great fear now is that the unions will demand similar pay rises or threaten to torpedo Mr Blair's grand plan to reform the public services.

The prime minister seems to have believed that the cabinet reshuffle would dominate the news agenda and the minor issue of a huge increase in politicians' pay would pass almost unnoticed.

In fact the opposite happened. The hugely-significant reshuffle was overshadowed by the pay increase and the hostile reaction to it.

It appeared to confirm all the worst fears that the Blair government had learned no lessons from the campaign and was drunk on power.

Good case

In fact, the prime minister has a perfectly good case when he argues that he and his ministers need to be paid the going rate for the job.

And the fact that the pay rise has been recommended by an independent body only strengthens his argument.

But that leaves open the question of why, if it is now right to give ministers a proper pay packet, they were previously under orders not to accept their full increase.

The size of the pay jump will also add strength to the pay rise case for nurses, teachers and bin men.

Margaret Thatcher started the trend - but then she was married to a millionaire - and everyone after her followed in her footsteps.

But it was always unclear exactly what message this apparent self-sacrifice was supposed to be sending out to voters.

If it was meant to suggest that ministers were somehow in touch with ordinary wage earners then it was misjudged.

Good causes

It was equally disingenuous to suggest they were somehow putting something back into the nation's coffers out of a sense of moral righteousness.

Student nurses
Nurses may demand pay rise
Many will wonder why ministers simply did not take their pay rises and sign over a percentage every year to good causes.

The truth is that ministers, led by John Prescott, have always been against the policy of not taking their full pay.

They were threatening to revolt and Tony Blair clearly knew the policy was unsustainable - so he gave way.

But where were the spin doctors in all this?

Surely Alastair Campbell and his army of manipulators are supposed to work out how these sorts of decisions will play with ordinary voters, and minimise the negative impact.

As, no matter how justified the pay increases might be, this decision is likely to be seen as a symbol of how a second New Labour government can be expected to act.

And it could land Mr Blair with a serious confrontation with the unions.

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See also:

12 Jun 01 | UK Politics
Blair under fire over pay
11 Jun 01 | UK Politics
Blair settles some old scores
10 Jun 01 | Business
Labour's spending dilemmas
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