As Gordon Brown addressed the TUC yesterday, one whispered question going around the Liverpool conference centre was: "Who will be up there this time next year?"
Union bosses have enjoyed 12 years of access to the heart of government. Each year, the highlight of their conference has been a speech by the Prime Minister or the Chancellor, with other ministers filling in on other days. There have also been union receptions around the year where it is barely possible to move without bumping into a government minister quaffing free bubbly.
But, by next summer, all that could be over, and the union bosses could be operating in a colder political climate. Brendan Barber, the TUC's pragmatic general secretary, has had two "getting to know you" meetings with David Cameron, and has made clear that, if there is a Conservative government, the TUC will deal with it as best they can. Even the possibility of inviting Mr Cameron to be the first Conservative prime minister to address a TUC conference has not been ruled out.
The last time the TUC had to deal with a new Conservative government, 30 years ago, it behaved as if Margaret Thatcher's election was a mistake it could put right. It paid a heavy price for underestimating her. Mr Barber does not want to repeat that mistake.
"It's a major part of my job to make sure that all the parties understand trade union concerns," he said. "If there was a change of government I would want to see a proper business-like relationship. I would want a proper dialogue."
Mark Serwotka, head of the trade union for civil servants, the Public and Commercial Services Union, has met the shadow Cabinet Office minister, Francis Maude, and, for the first time in 10 years, the union will have a fringe meeting at the Conservative conference, at which Mr Maude will speak.
"We put our points to Francis during the meeting and discussed our priorities," said an official. "We really will be treating them in much the way we do the Labour government."
That did not involve any conflict of loyalty for Mr Serwotka, whose politics are so far to the left that he would not see much distinction between a Labour and a Tory politician. Also, contrary to the popular view, most of the unions that make up the TUC, the PCSU included, are not affiliated to the Labour Party.
But even unions with strong party ties are getting ready to adjust to political change. Unison is particularly exposed, because hundreds of thousands of its members are government employees. Its general secretary, Dave Prentis, has not met David Cameron, but there have countless meetings between Unison officials and Conservative councillors. "They are the main employers for our members in some areas. We have to speak to them regularly," a Unison official said.
Another sign of change is that Mr Cameron has a personal envoy in Liverpool meeting union members: Richard Balfe, a former Labour MEP who defected to the Tories. Ironically Mr Balfe is a member of Unite, one of the few unions whose leaders resolutely refuse to meet him or any other Tory. Despite this, Mr Balfe claims: "I get on very well with people here. No one has been rude.
"There is a new era of realism here. It's notable that barbs about the horror of a Tory government were not really getting the usual applause. Unions, if they are to respond to their members' needs, have to talk to the people in power. They understand that.
"They know that next year they will have to invite Prime Minister David Cameron, but I don't know if he will come. You'll have to ask him."
"One question is whether a Cameron government is going to treat the unions as the enemy," a TUC official said. "The Thatcher government saw unions as almost illegal. The present Conservative leadership seems to be sending the message that they're not in that game.
"We're determined not to repeat the mistakes of 1979. There will be real engagement. It will be for the TUC General Council to decide whether they want David Cameron to address conference. There has been no decision to invite, but that doesn't mean there has been a decision not to."Reuse content