The Government can't afford to be late for the Millennium

This time it would not be Rupert Murdoch who was seen as the Great Satan but Tony Blair
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The Independent Culture
QUEEN MARY is said to have remarked that when she was dead, "you shall find `Calais' lying in my heart". I am beginning to wonder whether it might be the `Jubilee Line' linking central London with the Millennium Dome which will be engraved on the Prime Minister's heart. Further signs that disruptions in building the extension of the line to Greenwich, as a result of unofficial stoppages by electricians, might have serious consequences came towards the end of last week.

For months, too, there have been sporadic acts of sabotage by cutting cables. Now Mr Blair has involved himself personally, as The Independent reported on Saturday, by observing that it is a question of "making sure that the management is allowed to get on and do their job".

The statement is anodyne, but ministers, particularly prime ministers, normally refrain from taking sides in industrial disputes. But here is the Prime Minister himself backing management in a volatile situation. His words will have been widely noted, not least by left-wing activists looking for a chance to challenge the Government.

Whether Tony Blair knew it or not, when he declared that he would not cancel the Millennium Dome project but bring it to a successful conclusion, he was undertaking two enormous tasks rather than one. To get the Dome itself finished on time and within budget and to persuade Big Business to pay many of the bills is one daunting job; to ensure that millions of people can travel conveniently to Greenwich by completing the extension to the Jubilee Line is almost its equal.

In case of missing the deadline, - only a few weeks before the Dome is due to open - London Underground is considering alternative routes. Such emergency solutions are likely to be a deterrent to travel. The Dome would be ready, but the superstructure, full of wondrous sights, would be more or less empty.

The public is likely to be much more critical of lateness than it would be of dullness. I guess that the Prime Minister well understands this. If the contents fail to capture the imagination, there would be disappointment. Yet public opinion might be forgiving and even patient as the faults were corrected.

In the final analysis, governments aren't expected to be great impresarios. People would still go to see what the fuss was about. But to be late for an event like the Millennium, would be seen as incompetent. New Labour, having surprisingly taken over the Conservative party's reputation for getting things done, would find that it had lost an electoral asset of great value. Every speech by opposition leaders would refer to the Dome disaster.

No doubt this awful prospect is one reason why management of the Jubilee Line project has recently been given to a tough United States contractor, Bechtel. If there is dirty work to be done, the Government could always distance itself by saying, with mock distaste, that these were American business practices rather than British.

American managers are often more ruthless than their British counterparts; they play hard ball with natural flair. The determined Bill Gates who we have seen being cross-examined in a Washington court in recent weeks for unfairly using Microsoft's market dominance is a typical example. Bechtel is a hard company, too. Would Bechtel bring in so-called `scab' labour to break the strike? You bet.

The trades union concerned, the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union, has prudently removed itself from the line of fire. Union officials are expected to address a meeting today at which they will advocate a return to work.

Ken Jackson, the leader of the union, said it was committed to ensuring that the line was completed on time. Seeing that New Labour has kept Mrs Thatcher's labour laws on the Statute Book, there is no incentive for union intransigence. Almost certainly the union could be successfully attacked in the courts. Unofficial action, on the other hand, is in every way harder to combat.

Look at the reason given for the decision by some 600 electricians to stop work. The dispute is over the transfer of 12 electricians from London Bridge to the Green Park site - a distance of about four miles. The strikers say that the men were being victimised for protesting about a deficient fire alarm system at London Bridge. Management say that there are no health and safety issues involved.

This is a classic scenario. Working on a time sensitive project, the electricians have great leverage and they have always been prepared to use it. Anybody who has experience of preparing a venue will have ample evidence of this. Then there is the choice of complaint. Far better from the electricians' point of view to choose a health and safety issue rather than crudely demand increased pay, although more money is invariably the real objective.

As it is, the Jubilee Line electricians are earning up to pounds 1,150 per week, but high levels of remuneration often make people more greedy rather than less. Health and safety questions are a perfect cover. They may generate public sympathy; and in the end it is always possible to drop the dispute in return for cash.

Bechtel thus has to decide whether to endure blackmail by unofficial strikers until the project is finished, inevitably late and over cost, or to act now. Putting myself in Bechtel's shoes, I am afraid that I would act. I am a great believer in grabbing the initiative, even though one runs the risk of impetuous error.

Make no mistake, to act in these circumstances, would be to bring in non-union electricians, perhaps from overseas, to finish the job. A spokesman for the strikers has already said that the electricians would do everything possible to prevent alternative workers crossing the picket lines. He says that all entrances are guarded.

As a result, we could see a re-run of Wapping where, in 1986, Rupert Murdoch bussed in strike breakers to operate his new newspaper plant, daily running the gauntlet of angry pickets, jeering crowds and violent abuse. Only this time, it would not be Rupert Murdoch who was seen as the Great Satan, but Tony Blair. Even so, it is doubtful whether such demonisation would be an electoral liability. Mrs Thatcher famously benefited by defeating the miners in bloody battle.

Queen Mary had `Calais' in her heart because she lost England's last possession in France. If it comes to a fight, Tony Blair must hope that the Jubilee Line will be remembered as a victory.