Coalition tensions were heightened last night after David Cameron launched a provocative review into allegations of union vote-rigging and dirty tactics in the wake of Unite union's activities at the Grangemouth refinery in Scotland last month.
The inquiry will be chaired by Bruce Carr QC into whether trade union laws need to be toughened up. It follows a dispute at the refinery which arose after an employee was accused of involving in vote-rigging in Labour's selection of its Falkirk parliamentary candidate.
The review, which will take six months, will report to Conservative Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude and Liberal Democrat Business Secretary Vince Cable. While the Carr review is a government inquiry, it is likely to be seen by Labour as a politically motivated attempt to curb union control. Downing Street sources said the independent review into industrial disputes had been approved by both sides of the coalition. They claimed there had been 60 incidents related to leveraging by trade unionists beyond the Grangemouth dispute, but Lib Dem sources questioned this figure.
Mr Cable issued a statement insisting the review must look at both sides of industrial disputes – including the behaviour of employers and activities such as blacklisting – as well as those of unions. In a thinly veiled message to the Tories that the inquiry must not be used as a political tool to stifle legitimate trade union activities, Mr Cable said he had agreed a "proportionate and rational review". He said: "Generally speaking, industrial relations are on a good footing in the UK and have been for over two decades. The current strike rate is also at a historic low.
"There were clearly some very serious matters going on in Grangemouth. That is why I have agreed to a proportionate and rational review of industrial disputes. There are rogue unions but there are also rogue employers, some of whom have in the past engaged in illegal tactics like blacklisting."
Mr Maude said: "Allegations about trade union industrial intimidation tactics, including attempts to sabotage businesses' supply chains and harass employers' families, are deeply concerning. That's why we need an independent review."
Downing Street said the Government had to ensure that there was "resilience of critical industrial infrastructure" and this was under threat because of Grangemouth. A No 10 spokesman played down suggestions of a coalition split, insisting there was "nothing in Vince Cable's statement we would disagree with".