The biggest civil service union has warned of a strike over Boris Johnson’s ‘P&O-style’ approach to cutting 91,000 jobs in Whitehall, with ministers also seeking to cut working conditions by up to a third dismissal of staff.

The plan to cut one in five civil service jobs has caused alarm and dismay across government departments, after Johnson told his cabinet to spend the next month finding ways to bring the civil service back up to standard. before Brexit within three years. He said there was a need to reduce the size of the central government to deal with the cost of living crisis.

Johnson’s combative decision, briefed to the Daily Mail, adds to existing Civil Service anger over pay rises of less than half the current inflation rate of 7%, the Cabinet Office is working to bring them back in the office and the overwork of covid arrears. At the same time, ministers told unions they were also trying to revert previously rejected plans to cut public service severance pay by up to 33%.

In a further upheaval, Steve Barclay, Cabinet Minister and Chief of Staff No 10, has said that all top civil service jobs should in future be advertised externally as well as internally.

While taking public office, Johnson made a new call to bring public and private sector employees back to office after the pandemic. The government had previously said it was up to companies to determine where their workforce should be based. But in an interview with the Daily Mail, he said: “We need to get back into the habit of coming into the office. I believe people are more productive, more energetic, more full of ideas when they are around other people.

“My experience of working from home is that you spend an awful lot of time brewing another cup of coffee, then you know, you get up, walk very slowly to the fridge, cut a little piece of cheese, then very slowly walk back to your computer laptop and then forget what you were doing.

Mark Serwotka, the general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union, which represents around 180,000 public sector workers, has warned that the civil service has reached the “tipping point” of realistic nationwide strike action.

“We have our conference in 10 days where I’m as certain as possible that we’ll move to a national strike ballot, probably in September,” he said.

He said the civil service was already struggling with backlogs of passports, driving licenses, court cases and pension payments due to a “chronic understaffing and recruitment crisis”.

“Six weeks ago we were all outraged by P&O and now half a million civil servants have woken up to the media saying one in five jobs must go,” he added, referring to the recent sacking of almost 800 crew members by P&O Ferries.

Dave Penman, the general secretary of the FDA union, which represents 19,000 senior civil servants, said it had been like a “sort of P&O: civil servants are finding that about one in five jobs have to go through the Daily Mail” and that the 91,000 number had been “pulled out of nowhere”.

Kevin Brandstatter, a national official for the GMB union, which represents a large number of Justice Department workers, said: “This is a real bombshell for the civil service and it is not yet clear where the ax will fall. But if the budget cuts hit GMB members at the Ministry of Justice, it will have a huge impact on legal aid and everyone’s right to adequate representation.

On Friday, permanent secretaries wrote to their departments, with some lamenting how news of the cuts had been conveyed. Jim Harra, the permanent secretary at HM Revenue and Customs, sent a message to staff saying: ‘I’m sorry you found out about this from the media rather than me or the civil service leaders.

Defending the plans, Brexit Opportunities Minister Jacob Rees-Mogg said it was not a return to austerity as pre-Brexit voting levels were “reasonable”. Downing Street also did not rule out mandatory layoffs, although No 10 said he hoped many of the cuts would be the result of “natural waste”.

Experts have also questioned the Prime Minister’s claim that the cuts will contribute to the cost of living. Richard Murphy, professor of accountancy at the University of Sheffield, said: “Reducing employment does not reduce the cost of living. This only worsens the cost of living crisis for some, and for the rest of us, it robs us of the benefit of their spending – which means we are worse off too.

Johnson’s plan was also challenged by Margaret Hodge, a Labor MP and former chair of the Public Accounts Committee, who said it was “a telltale sign of a government running out of ideas”.

“As the cost of living crisis rages on, you can put their plans for real reform on a cigarette paper. Our hollowed-out civil service urgently needs more expertise, not less,” she said.

Tony Wilson, director of the Institute for Employment Studies, said ministers should cut the number of public service jobs created to deal with the pandemic, but the scale of the cuts was “fanciful and detrimental to the ability of the public service to develop policies”. ”.

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He added: ‘If the government wants to deny the Ministry of Defense some of the 50,000 civilians who support the work of the armed forces, cut the number of tax collectors employed by HMRC, cut the Ministry of Interior and hitting the justice system with even more cuts, that should go ahead.

“The cuts would also hurt the DWP’s ability to find new jobs for those made redundant, including civil servants made redundant by the new plan.”

Jonathan Portes, an economist at King’s College London, said: ‘The cheapest and least painful way to cut staff is a hiring freeze – but it’s also a recipe for inefficiency and misallocation of resources. …which often means higher consulting bills. Layoffs, on the other hand, cost money and sap morale.