Brown steps into BA strike to allay poll fear

PM hopes for cooling off this week as management and union claim success

Gordon Brown is to make a fresh attempt today to resolve the bitter British Airways dispute as alarm grows in Labour high command over its impact on the party's electoral prospects.

Senior ministers believe the airline and the union Unite have time to reach a deal before a second wave of strikes due to begin on Saturday.

The first phase of industrial action by cabin crew staff will end this evening, with the two sides giving wildly differing accounts of its impact on British Airways services.

The Independent understands that Mr Brown, the Business Secretary Lord Mandelson and the Transport Secretary Lord Adonis were in contact with management and unions over the weekend. There seemed little common ground last night, but the Government's hope is that the end of strike action today will help to lower the dispute's temperature.

A new 96-hour walkout is planned from Saturday, leaving four days to search for settlement to the long-running wrangle over the staffing levels of cabin crews.

Government sources claim a deal to prevent the walkouts was in sight last Thursday, but Tony Woodley, Unite's joint general secretary, was given little room for manoeuvre by hardline shop stewards and officials representing the cabin crew union Bassa. One government source said: "We will be trying to bang heads together. They were close to agreement last week and we have got to help them get there."

The Conservatives have launched a poster campaign accusing the Prime Minister of doing "sweet BA" to stop the strike.

Opinion polls yesterday showed no evidence of a "BA effect" on party support. But with the election due in just over six weeks' time, ministers acknowledge that the dispute could not have come at a worse time, particularly given Labour's dependence on donations from Unite.

BA, which calculates it has already cost it close to £30m in lost business, said it had reinstated a number of cancelled flights over the weekend after claiming more crew than expected reported for work.

It maintained that 1,157 cabin crew ignored the first day of the three-day stoppage yesterday and reported for duty – equivalent to 97 per cent of Gatwick crew and 52.5 per cent of Heathrow crew. BA said: "Our contingency plans are continuing to work well. Our revised schedule of departures at Heathrow and Gatwick is going as planned and many aircraft are departing full."

Mr Woodley yesterday retorted that the strike was holding firm, with just a handful of cabin crews breaking ranks. He denounced the "macho" management style of Willie Walsh, the airline's chief executive, and said BA's chairman Martin Broughton and his board should intervene. "It is obvious this strike is in no one's interest. We need a negotiated settlement," he said.

In an open letter congratulating cabin crew on their "magnificent" support for the strike, Mr Woodley said: "You have stood up for your rights, your dignity and your pride in the face of a bullying management and a malicious Tory media."

Unite last night published a "dossier of disgrace", accusing BA of bullying and harassment of union members and officials. It claimed 38 staff had been suspended or disciplined.

At Heathrow airport Canadian Stephanie Matteo, 26, faced a 24-hour delay getting home from a holiday with her boyfriend in Thailand because of the strike. Diane Huntley, 50, and her daughter Robin, from Maine in the US, endured a nine-hour bus trip from Edinburgh when a flight to Heathrow was cancelled.