BORIS Johnson tried to exploit divisions in Labour over yesterday’s rail strike, as the beleaguered Prime Minister sought to shore up his position ahead of what looks set to be a bruising set of by-elections.

Tomorrow, the Tories will almost certainly lose Wakefield in northern England and could be run close in the traditionally safe seat of Tiverton and Honiton in Devon.

Opening Prime Minister’s Questions, Sir Keir Starmer, jokingly paid tribute to the bravery of the Tory candidates.

He said: “In particular, the plucky Conservative candidate for Wakefield, he is standing even though his own colleagues think he is so useless they held a vote of no confidence in him.”

Sir Keir added: “Does the Prime Minister hold any personal interest in seeing if the public will vote for a Tory that even his own side don’t think is up to it?”

Mr Johnson replied: “I have absolutely no doubt that the people of this country and the people of Wakefield, and the people of Tiverton and Honiton would much rather vote for a solid Conservative Government than for a Labour Party, their enablers and acolytes in the Liberal Democrats, the karma chameleons of British politics.”

The Prime Minister added that Sir Keir “hasn’t even got the gumption to speak out against the rail strikes”.

The Labour leader - in a bid to distance the party from the strikes that brought the country to halt - had ordered his shadow cabinet colleagues not to join the picket lines 

However, at least three junior frontbenchers and Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar defied his instructions.

In the Commons, Sir Keir said that the Prime Minister and his transport secretary had not “lifted a finger to stop these strikes.”

However, he added, Mr Johnson had found the time to join more than 250 MPs and Tory party donors at a lavish fundraising event at the V&A Museum on Monday night.

One auction winner reportedly paid around £120,000 for a dinner with Mr Johnson, Theresa May and David Cameron raffled off by Conservative Party Headquarters.

“If there’s money coming his way, he’s there,” Sir Keir said. 

“So rather than blame everyone else why doesn’t he do his job, get round the table and get the trains running?”

Mr Johnson replied: “We are making sure that we do everything we can to prevent these strikes. He knows it is up to the railway companies to negotiate, that is their job.

"We’ve spent £16 billion looking after the railways throughout the pandemic, that’s cost every household £600.”

He added: “We know why he won’t condemn the strikes, we know why even now he hasn’t got the gumption to call out his MPs for going out to support the pickets.

"The reason his authority is on the line in this matter is that they take £10 million.

“That’s the fee the learned gentleman opposite is receiving for the case he is failing to make.”

Sir Keir went on to raise the reports over proposed changes to City bosses’ pay, after claims the government are considering removing the cap on bankers’ bonuses.

“Pay rises for City bankers, pay cuts for district nurses – that’s the new approach. I didn’t see that on any leaflets in Wakefield," the Labour leader said.

“But this hasn’t come from nowhere because according to the Financial Times on June 7 last year the Prime Minister was directly lobbied for the cap to be lifted.

“Rather than help working people, he’s rolled over on bankers’ bonuses, hasn’t he?”

Mr Johnson replied: “What we’re actually doing is, thanks to the decisions we’ve taken, we’re putting money into the pockets of people up and down the country – £1,200 more for the eight million most vulnerable households.”

Mr Johnson said the Government was able to do this after taking the “tough decisions” linked to the pandemic.

Sir Keir insisted: “Fifteen tax rises, high tax, low wages, low growth – that sums his Government up. Working people paying more tax under this Government and now they’re told to take a pay cut.

“He’s having meetings about increasing bankers’ bonuses, but he can’t find time for a single meeting to end the strikes crippling the country.”

Sir Keir said armed forces personnel are also facing a real-terms pay cut, adding: “Why is his Government focused on increasing bankers’ pay than the pay of those who are running the country?”

Mr Johnson replied: “How absolutely satirical that he should talk about our armed forces when we’ve increased funding by a record sum since the end of the Cold War and eight of the shadow frontbench actually want to get rid of our nuclear deterrent.”

He said the Government is “cutting the cost of transport for working people by delivering reforms”, adding on Labour: “They’re out on the picket line literally holding hands with Arthur Scargill. It’s worse than under Jeremy Corbyn.

“This is a Government that is taking this country forward, they would take it back to the 1970s.”