Clearly pleased with reaction to Monday's onslaught on the Opposition's plans to recognise unions if more than half the workforce in a company agreed, ministers moved to take the issue a step further.
Ian Lang, President of the Board of Trade, highlighted details of a manifesto published last year by the European Trade Union Confederation which backed an "employment union" similar to planned economic and monetary union. If implemented, the plans would lead to a 35-hour week, harmonised tax and job-creation policies and an EU employment quango as well as expansion of the public sector, Mr Lang said.
He said Labour's deputy leader, John Prescott, had backed the manifesto. "Today's revelations show Labour's agenda for boosting union power doesn't end with statutory recognition. They are also seeking to mislead ... people into thinking the Social Chapter poses no threat. But the fact is that the trade unions are salivating at the prospect of the new powers it would give them."
Mr Prescott said Mr Lang's claims were based "on a total misapprehension".
"I was invited to address the European trade unions on February 1, 1996 as a vice-president of the Party of European Socialists, to discuss the employment chapter proposed at the Inter-Governmental Conference (of EU leaders). No pact was signed. The employment chapter under discussion is about job creation and reducing unemployment. It is not about employee rights or a four-day week."
Tony Blair issued a fresh defence of Labour's plans for recognition within British companies, saying New Labour had no plans to return to the strife of the 1960s or 1970s. The Conservatives had been indulging in scare tactics, he said.
"There is no return under our proposals to the legislation of the 1970s - no secondary action, no secondary picketing, flying picketing, no return to the days of strikes without ballots or the days when union leaders didn't have to be elected by ballots. Even after every change we are proposing, Britain would remain with a more restricted trade-union legislative framework than any country in the Western world."
The Liberal Democrat leader, Paddy Ashdown, said both parties' histories were coming back to haunt them, but he backed Labour's view that employees should be able to seek union recognition. "There is no reason why a workforce should not vote for the union that will represent it. There is no reason why any individual who does not wish to be a member of a union should not be able to do so. This is a hoary old chestnut dragged up from the past. If you look and see what people actually do in British industry today, they built partnerships, some involving unions, some not. "That's the way of the future."