Ministers are drawing up plans to deal with a wave of co-ordinated public sector strikes across the country this summer. A special unit of civil servants has been set up in the Cabinet Office to "war game" areas of vulnerability in key services and infrastructure. They are also investigating how they can draft in private-sector "strike breakers" to cross picket lines.
Services identified as vulnerable to strikes include transport, energy, prisons and the health service. Ministers fear that the trigger for such co-ordinated action will be plans to increase the amount that public-sector workers have to contribute to their pensions – and could come as soon as the summer.
The Government is in talks with individual unions ahead of Lord Hutton's report into public-sector pension reform, due to be published next month. But they fear that if these break down without agreement, it could provide the excuse that some trade unions are looking for, allowing them to legitimately co-ordinate strike action and take on the Government in a battle of wills.
Tensions have been inflamed by David Cameron's announcement yesterday that private companies, voluntary groups and charities will be allowed to bid to provide public services. The changes could allow non-public providers to run schools, hospitals and council services such as maintaining parks, adult care, special schools and roads maintenance. Outside providers would be offered payment-by-results contracts.
Brendan Barber, TUC general secretary, said this represented a "naked right-wing agenda" that would take the country back to the most divisive years of the 1980s.
Ministers found when they took power in June that Labour had done nothing to prepare for nationwide strike action. They instructed all government departments to make contingency plans to deal with strikes, which have been forwarded to the Cabinet Office under the direction of the Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude.
Teams have been looking at examples of the ongoing strikes on the London underground network and British Airways to provide a model of how private-sector contractors could be brought in at short notice to limit the effectiveness of any mass strike action.
They are also considering how the "nuclear option" of legislation directly targeting the trade union movement could be employed. This could include a ban on union subscriptions being collected through the payroll and forcing any ballot for strike action to have the majority support of members – not just those who choose to vote.
But a senior Whitehall source said such inflammatory moves would be kept in reserve, as ministers were keen to prepare for the worst but not deliberately inflame the unions.
The "war room" has echoes of Margaret Thatcher's preparations ahead of the miner's strike in 1984. The then Conservative prime minister was able to resist the miners in part because she had stockpiled more than a year's supply of coal.
Yesterday a Whitehall source said: "We've been war-gaming this, looking at all the scenarios and working out where we are most vulnerable. We are looking at who we are likely to enrage and when we are likely to be doing it. We need to be ready for everything."
The source said ministers had concluded that while some unions would be prepared to compromise with the Government, others – in particular the Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) , led by Bob Crow, and the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union, led by Mark Serwotka – were spoiling for a fight.
"The militants like Serwotka and Crow want to co-ordinate attacks so you get transport strikes and walkouts in prisons and the health service," the source said. He added that they would be timed to coincide with a period when the police also felt threatened so they would only do the bare minimum to prevent disruption.
"We are looking across the country at things like which prisons have a high number of militant staff and which schools have a high proportion of NUT [National Union of Teachers] staff. The idea is if they go on strike we will be prepared," the source said.
The TUC's Mr Barber said: "Public-sector workers will be aghast to hear that the Cabinet Office is spending time, effort and resources working out how to frustrate possible industrial action in the public sector, rather than focusing on how to avoid it in the first place.
"Instead of 'war-gaming' how best to break strikes, [the] Government should concentrate on reaching agreement on how best to move forward on key issues such as pensions and public service reform."
Mr Crow added: "If Francis Maude thinks playing a glorified game of battleships is going to stave off public anger about cuts to jobs and public services while the bankers are scooping a £6bn bonus jackpot then he needs a class A reality check."
A spokesman for the PCS said: "Ministers say they want to talk to us but every time we go to talk to them they say everything is non-negotiable. They're not willing to negotiate in any way. There is a TUC day of protest in London on 26 March at which we think hundreds of thousands of people will turn out and we will have to build on that and see what happens.
"That's a protest, not strikes, but we're still in talks with other unions about industrial action, should it become necessary."