Britain is facing a long and bitter conflict between firefighters and the Government after ministers unexpectedly vetoed a draft peace formula.
Amid continuing recriminations involving ministers, union leaders and employers, more than 50,000 firefighters today started the second day of their eight-day strike.
The Government signalled today that, after blocking a draft agreeement to settle the dispute yesterday, Ministers will play a role in any future negotiations. Nick Raynsford, the fire service Minister, speaking on the BBC Radio Today programme, urged a resumption of negotiations and said the Government should be involved to avoid a repeat of the "shambles" yesterday.
The TUC general secretary, John Monks, described the strike the most serious industrial unrest since Labour were elected in 1997 as a "seminal dispute" and urged all unions to back the action.
The industrial action began yesterday morning once the Government refused to agree to a 16 per cent offer over two years, thrashed out between the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) and management during a night of "shuttle negotiation" between central London hotels.
The Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, faced serious criticism after it was revealed that he had been told of the offer at 5.50am yesterday but said it would not be possible to assess the proposal until 9am, when firefighters began to walk out.
He later defended his decision, telling ITN: "I have to look at a deal that I now know would have cost hundreds of millions of pounds ... Your viewers would want me to be watching their money very carefully."
Firefighters in many locations left picket lines yesterday to help out where lives were endangered. By early afternoon, Green Goddesses had been rushed to a serious fire at a disused plastics factory in West Bromwich, West Midlands, which left five soldiers affected by smoke inhalation and a sixth needing hospital treatment.
Employers and the union professed amazement that the Government had stopped a draft deal in which all pay ncreases after an initial 4 per cent depended on changes to working practices. Later, John Reid, the Labour party chairman, put the cost to the taxpayer of the proposed deal at £400m.
Mr Blair's spokesman attacked the FBU for defending working practices "set in formaldehyde for 25 years" and the employers for "defaulting to the soft option" in negotiations. He denounced the overnight talks as a "ludicrous charade".
"If people think the Government and country can be held to ransom through strike action, can be bounced through uncosted, half-baked proposals in the middle of the night with little or no mention of modernisation, they are not living in the real world," he said.
"What's clear from all this nonsense the FBU are spouting is they were always going to have a strike because they aren't serious about modernisation." He said that, as far as the union was concerned, modernisation consisted of no more than "shiny new fire engines".
An FBU official said it was the third time ministers had interfered to stop a settlement. One union officer said: "There was plenty of negotiating still to be done. We wanted to meet next Wednesday or Thursday but the Government seems to have strangled the baby at birth." Overnight negotiations collapsed at 7.30am when Andy Gilchrist, general secretary of the FBU, announced with "incredible regret" that the strike would go ahead.
Mr Gilchrist said his union's executive had agreed to suspend the strike after a new pay deal was tabled by employers. "But the pattern of government intervention has continued," he said. "This strike action could have been avoided but the Government has ensured there will be a strike."
Some fire service employers' representatives who were involved in the negotiations joined the chorus of outrage.
Christina Jebb, a Liberal Democrat councillor and representative of the Staffordshire Fire Authority, said government interference had scuppered an agreement. "John Prescott is putting innocent people's lives at risk and he is putting the military's lives at risk as well," she said.
Ted George, the chairman of the employers' side, admitted that there was agreement in principle but difficulty in finding funding to pay for it.
It is understood that the most implacable opposition came from the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, who had worked out that a similar deal would cost £4bn a year which, if replicated throughout the public sector, would add £16bn to the Budget. An official said: "No responsible Government can ignore the impact on other pay." Mr Prescott and Nick Raynsford, the minister for the fire service, were summoned to talk to the Prime Minister, who had returned from a Nato summit in Prague.
Last night, the London Fire Brigade Commissioner, Brian Robinson, announced an agreement with the FBU over arrangements to recall its members in the event of a very serious incident in the capital.