On 27th May last year, the Queen addressed Parliament. Among the various items of legislation she announced was the following:

“My government will bring forward legislation to reform trade unions and to protect essential public services against strikes.”

It wasn’t a surprise – after all, the first majority Conservative government in two decades had just been elected on a manifesto promising numerous trade union reforms:

‘We will protect you from disruptive and undemocratic strike action

Strikes should only ever be the result of a clear, positive decision based on a ballot in which at least half the workforce has voted. This turnout threshold will be an important and fair step to rebalance the interests of employers, employees, the public and the rights of trade unions. We will, in addition, tackle the disproportionate impact of strikes in essential public services by introducing a tougher threshold in health, education, fire and transport.

Industrial action in these essential services would require the support of at least 40 per cent of all those entitled to take part in strike ballots – as well as a majority of those who actually turn out to vote. We will also repeal nonsensical restrictions banning employers from hiring agency staff to provide essential cover during strikes; and ensure strikes cannot be called on the basis of ballots conducted years before. We will tackle intimidation of non-striking workers; legislate to ensure trade unions use a transparent opt-in process for union subscriptions; tighten the rules around taxpayer-funded paid ‘facility time’ for union representatives; and reform the role of the Certification Officer.’

The proposals for trade union reform were clear, endorsed by a General Election, and the product of years of hard work by Ministers, MPs and civil servants.

And yet, now some of them are being watered down, delayed or ditched altogether. It’s true to say they have faced opposition, both in the Lords and among the unions themselves, but that is not necessarily a sufficient reason to admit defeat on a manifesto promise. After all, in other areas, such as the seven-day NHS, the Government is evidently willing to stick out its chin and battle through far stiffer opposition in order to deliver on its manifesto.

So why is the Government’s commitment to its union reforms proving to be so much softer than its other promises to the electorate? Three words: the EU referendum.

Downing Street appears to be alarmed at the distinctly lacklustre support from the Labour movement for the pro-EU campaign. All the polling suggests Labour voters will be crucial to the eventual result, and yet Alan Johnson’s Labour effort was to be funded only to the tune of £75,000.

Step forward Michael Crick, who has dug up some telling information about how the weakening of trade union reforms was agreed:

If Crick is right (and the FT has made a similar suggestion, while Downing Street does not properly deny it) then this is quite an extraordinary situation. The Government is effectively ransoming off its manifesto commitments in return for union funding of the pro-EU campaign. It’s a peculiar way to behave on policies which were just voted for by the electorate, and doubly so when the Health Secretary is simultaneously arguing to junior doctors that manifesto pledges are sacrosanct.

Worse, it’s a short-sighted way to govern. These reforms have been in the works for some years, they are in the national interest and this Government is a rare opportunity to enact them. Selling them off in return for some union cheerleading for Brussels is not a good look.

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