The Labour Party was going to extraordinary lengths last night to prevent Tony Blair's final appearance at the TUC ending in humiliation - the Prime Minister faces a potentially devastating strike at the heart of the National Health Service.
After talks with senior party figures, Brendan Barber, the TUC leader, was attempting to orchestrate a standing ovation for the Prime Minister by the big unions after today's question and answer session. Some unions want to vent their anger over Mr Blair's policies by walking out of the conference centre in Brighton.
The attempt to give the Prime Minister a rousing reception to paper over the cracks in Labour's civil war, looked likely to fail as public service unions set a collision course with the Government over the National Health Service.
Union leaders warned that hospitals would be plunged into chaos within days after hundreds of NHS supply staff voted to strike in protest at privatisation.
The first strikes to bring the NHS Logistics Agency to a standstill could be called within seven days, and could coincide with the Labour Party conference later.
Leaders of the public services union Unison said a series of rolling strikes at the agency could paralyse large parts of the NHS.
The organisation makes vital daily deliveries of equipment ranging from bedpans and latex gloves to syringes and food to hospitals and surgeries.
Union leaders said the 1,400 staff were furious at a Government deal to contract out the service to the parcels firm DHL and warned they were preparing to challenge it in the High Court.
Meanwhile, Mr Barber's attempts to give the Prime Minster an easy ride - he also wanted questioners show Mr Blair a degree of deference - is expected to provoke another controversy. He is a member of the party in a private capacity but the TUC has no formal links with it and his covert activities will infuriate union members who are not Labour supporters.
The flurry of behind-the-scenes activity at the TUC came after the RMT rail union revealed that it was going to walk out en masse during the Prime Minister's address. The union, one of the founders of the party, has been expelled for backing non-Labour candidates in elections.
Members of the Fire Brigades Union, which quit the party in the wake of the prolonged industrial action by firefighters in 2003-04, are also expected to show their dissent. Some are planning to heckle the Prime Minister, others may boycott the session, some may follow the RMT delegation out of the hall.
Yesterday Dave Prentis, the Unison general secretary, issued an open challenge to Mr Blair, and he demanded ministers take action to halt NHS privatisation.
He said: "This is a government creating an impression of ineptitude when it comes to health reform; a government that's lost the plot. As we move towards a change of Labour leader, I have a message for those waiting in the wings - you've ridden on our backs for too long. Don't take my union and this movement's support for granted. You have to earn it."
Derek Simpson, general secretary of Amicus, intensified the pressure on Mr Blair, demanding that he step down immediately in favour of Gordon Brown.
The leaders' views
* DAVE PRENTIS, GENERAL SECRETARY OF UNISON
"When the Prime Minister comes to the TUC, he has always been well received. What I can't guarantee is that he will get the sort of pre-planned standing ovation that he gets at the Labour Party conference. He will get tough questions from delegates, but he is usually adept at answering them."
* MARK SERWOTKA, GENERAL SECRETARY OF THE PUBLIC AND COMMERCIAL SERVICES UNION
"If Mr Blair is going to come up with more of the same, he is going to get a pretty frosty reception. However, if he recognises some of the mistakes about botched privatisation and treats the Civil Service properly, I will be the first to give him a round of applause. This is his final chance to make amends."
* BOB CROW, GENERAL SECRETARY OF THE RMT RAIL UNION
"What is the point of listening to someone when you can't believe a word they say? In opposition, Blair promised us a publicly owned railway, an ethical foreign policy and fair labour laws. He has delivered privatisation, illegal wars and the boast that Britain maintains the harshest anti-union legislation in western Europe."
* MATT WRACK, GENERAL SECRETARY OF THE FIRE BRIGADES UNION
"Tony Blair will not get a warm welcome from FBU delegates. Firefighters were bitterly disappointed by the way they were treated during the 2002-03 dispute. Our members felt that they were attacked and vilified simply for asking for a pay rise. Unfortunately, we feel our service has been under attack ever since."Reuse content