John McDonnell has accused Theresa May of “almost provoking” public sector workers into more industrial unrest by failing to take action to address years of pay restraint.

The shadow chancellor said he had not seen this level of anger among health workers, civil servants, teachers and others in more than 20 years, and said people had “had enough” of struggling to get by.

He dismissed a Downing Street hint that steps could be taken to address the concerns, warning that ministers were likely to pick out certain groups of workers for help rather than fully lifting the 1% cap that has been in place for seven years. He said such a policy would amount to “divide and rule”.

They’ll choose individual targets which they think they can buy off. They think they can buy off the public’s anger about some of these issues but others they will leave alone -; and they are some of the lowest-paid workers,” he said.

“If you look at the health service, they might do something for nurses, because they’ve lost so much pay, but what about some of the ancillary workers, some of the lowest paid?”

Asked whether there was likely to be an increase in industrial unrest, McDonnell replied: “Inevitably. If they [the Conservatives] don’t do something, inevitably. It is almost as if they are provoking it.

“And I think you’ll find across the health service and teaching there will be people acting in solidarity -; they are provoking real anger.”

McDonnell said he had been shocked by what he had found at picket lines in recent months. “I’ve not felt the anger being expressed for 20 years.”

McDonnell also said Labour had celebrated May’s recent suggestion that she was “not a quitter” and would lead the Conservative party into the next general election.

“It was a wonderful announcement. The best thing she could have possibly done. It boosted support for the Labour party overnight and caused absolute disarray in the Conservative party,” he said. “You can’t walk down a corridor in this place without seeing a group of Tory MPs plotting.”

McDonnell joked that he would approach the MPs and “try to get odds” about who might replace the prime minister.

Speaking from his office in parliament as MPs returned from the summer break, he said he was preparing to make May’s life difficult as her government attempts to get a series of legislative measures through parliament.

In particular, McDonnell said he wanted to target the finance bill, which returns to parliament on Wednesday, and expose the government’s failure to crack down on possible tax avoidance by non-domiciled residents -; so-called non-doms.

“They are going to do a lot of spin around non-doms -; what they are doing is defining non-doms, giving them up to 15 years living here, but at the same time they are not including offshore trusts,” he said.

“So it is inevitable what will happen: the offshore trusts will be used as vehicles. They will say how wonderful the bill is. But it’s smoke and mirrors.”

McDonnell said he wanted to show the “stark contrast” between Tory policies relating to the rich and to those struggling to get by. “For the wealthiest they are saying they are doing something but actually they are protecting them. And at the same time what are they doing to some of the lowest-paid workers in the country?”

He said the Labour party wanted to place the issues of debt, low pay, lack of business investment and insecurity on the agenda.

He said May’s government was in disarray. “The thing about governments is you have to maintain momentum, knowing what you are going to do, and if they’ve dumped most of their manifesto, all that leaves room for at the moment is squabbling over Brexit and publicity stunts like this budget will be over the pay cap.

“That vacuum is then filled by conspiracy and plotting and that is what is going on.”

McDonnell played down suggestions that his party’s conference would be dogged by splits including over rules about how to elect the next leader.

“We’ll still be the warm family we’ve always been,” he joked, before adding: “I think the atmosphere’s transformed since the general election. During the election campaign itself we were pretty united. Conference will be quite exciting; I think the atmosphere will be tremendous.”

But he said there would be no triumphalism. “We didn’t win, but we’ve got to win. I think conference will be serious: we could be in government soon, so let’s talk about how we’re going to govern.”

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