Nadhim Zahawi, Tory party chairman, has infuriated UK unions and political opponents by claiming that workers going on strike in the run-up to Christmas are playing into the hands of Vladimir Putin.
Zahawi argued that the Russian leader had hoped to cause economic chaos by using energy supplies as a weapon in his invasion of Ukraine, forcing up inflation across Europe and triggering divisions in society.
“It’s unfair, in my view, for the unions to really damage and disrupt people’s lives and livelihoods at Christmas,” Zahawi told the BBC’s Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg.
“They should rethink and reflect on this because that is exactly what Putin wants to see. Let’s not divide, let’s come together,” he said.
But his comments, which come ahead of a wave of planned strikes this month by workers ranging from nurses to rail and postal workers, were described as “ludicrous and insulting” by Christine Jardine for the Liberal Democrats.
And Pat Cullen, general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, said using Russia’s war in Ukraine as a justification for a real-terms pay cut for nurses was “a new low for this government”.
“The public does not believe this kind of rhetoric and wants ministers to address our dispute,” she said.
Meanwhile, Zahawi said the role of the army was part of contingency planning under which soldiers could be drafted in to carry out the work of key staff who went on strike in areas such as border control and the ambulance service.
Ministers and employers are racing to try to find a resolution to the rail dispute, where Mark Harper, transport secretary, has become involved in negotiations.
On Sunday, the group representing train companies made its first offer to the RMT union as it attempted to head off a planned strike due to begin in nine days. The mood around the talks has lifted in recent days.
The Rail Delivery Group said its offer includes a pay increase for staff of up to 8 per cent over two years and urged the RMT to put the offer to its members to “remove the threat” of industrial action.
The long-running row over pay, working conditions and job security is currently scheduled to see strike action across four 48-hour periods in December and early January starting on December 13.
The rail strikes are among a series of continuing disputes across a range of sectors — including the NHS, schools and universities — mostly over pay offers far behind consumer price inflation, which in October reached a 41-year high of 11.1 per cent.
The perception of a country grinding to a halt through a series of strikes is a serious political risk for Rishi Sunak’s government, with the Conservatives typically trailing Labour by 20 points in opinion polls.
Zahawi said the party was rebuilding itself under Sunak’s leadership but he agreed that the Conservatives’ heavy defeat to Labour in last week’s Chester by-election — which the opposition party held with 60 per cent of the vote — had been a very poor result.