The brothers still have Tony by the pocket

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The conference season kicks off with the usual whimper next week as the 131st Trades Union Congress - the baronial beanfeast - gets under way in Brighton. Don't expect too many headlines. Not only are the union bosses seen as ever less important national figures, but the TUC itself contrives to make the event as uninteresting as possible by hammering out anodyne composite motions in gobbledegook before the week even begins. They then try to ensure that speeches by the more fiery orators, such as the NUM's Arthur Scargill or Fire Brigades Union boss Ken Cameron, are scheduled when the cameras aren't watching. Don't be surprised if you spot one of them striding towards the podium just as the TV coverage ends for the day.

But however hard the organisers try to kill interest in their own event, the over-inflated egos of the barons themselves usually ensure that a good row will break out. Almost invariably, the row is between those who feel that it is their duty to roll over and Not Cause Trouble for Labour, and those who would prefer a bit more freedom to criticise the party for which they cough up so much.

Two years into a Labour government, some of the brothers and sisters are starting to feel a bit ripped-off. The level of the minimum wage was not what they'd hoped for, but they didn't quibble unduly. The Employment Relations Act was a huge disappointment to those who were looking to the Government to make union recruitment easier, but they let it pass. But for many unions, the last straw is the Government's failure to implement the European Working Time Directive. Cheered on by many of their friends, the GPMU print union is threatening to take the Department of Trade and Industry to the European Court over the issue.

Although New Labour likes to keep a little distance from the unions, it is vital for them that the relationship doesn't break down completely. However welcome Lord Sainsbury's pounds 2m is, Tony Blair knows that he needs the unions' chequebooks for the next election. That's why he'll be the "surprise ministerial speaker" in Brighton on Tuesday. Every other year, the Labour leader has to enter the lions' den just to prove he gives them some consideration. For 40 minutes or so he has to try to convince them - and probably himself - that there is room for them in New Labour. Two years ago Blair's speech received a fairly muted reception: the self-deprecatory jokes fell decidedly flat and the mandatory standing ovation was over in a blink. He even got the name of John Monks's favourite football team wrong. This time - following his remarks in July about "scars on my back", (which went down like a double dose of cod liver oil with many in the public sector) he is likely to have to work even harder for a positive response.

Doubtless he'll succeed in winning them over. He usually does. And that's important, not just because he needs their money for the election in 2001. Once that's over and won, he'll need the unions' help again if he is to have any chance of victory in that single currency referendum.

Despite the unpopularity of the euro in current polls, Labour planners are still optimistic that a referendum in 2002 will be a walk-over. But their plans rely almost entirely on both sides of business backing a "yes" vote. The idea is that when the public sees bosses and unions standing on a platform together (along with Tony Blair, Charles Kennedy and Ken Clarke) to argue that voting "No" will cost you your job, your house (and doubtless your friends and your cat as well), everyone will rush out to vote for the euro. Well, Kennedy and Clarke are squared. The CBI is quite prepared. But suddenly the unions are playing hard to get. And that is something which must worry the pro-Europeans in Downing Street.

Until 1988, the unions had - like the Labour Party - been pretty hostile to Europe. They saw it as a bosses' conspiracy. But in that year, Commission President Jacques Delors came to Congress to persuade them otherwise. With a mix of flattery and promises of action, he tried to convince them that Brussels was on their side: it would be unacceptable for Europe to become a source of social regression, while we are trying to rediscover together the road to prosperity and employment. Dear friends, your movement has a major role to play. Europe needs you.

Dear friends! No one had spoken to them like that for years. Europe needs us! At least someone does. Ron Todd, then T&G boss, was an instant convert: it's no secret, he argued, that some of us have been sceptical about there being any benefits in the European dimension. But now we have it from the President of the Commission himself that he is determined to press forward on this front. Colleagues - in the short term we have not a cat in hell's chance of achieving that in Westminster. The only card game in town at the moment is in Brussels. And with that, the centre of gravity within the union movement turned firmly towards Europe.

But now Todd's successor, Bill Morris, is threatening to take his cards elsewhere. While many unions remain enthusiastic, the two biggest - Unison and the T&G - are increasingly hostile. Morris threatened to vote down a pro-single currency motion at next week's Congress unless it was watered down. The motion was duly weakened - but that has left John Edmonds's GMB spoiling for a fight. Edmonds is due to propose the new motion, and he is certain to make his disappointment crystal clear. And this from two unions which were supposed to merge fairly soon.

All of which surely means that - far from presenting a united front during the referendum - some senior union figures (along with some senior management figures) will probably be standing alongside William Hague (or even Michael Portillo) and Tony Benn on the "No" platform. And that prospect rather ruins the dreams of the "walkover" brigade.

Perhaps this goes some way towards explaining the rather mysterious intervention of the Foreign Secretary in the single currency debate this week. Robin Cook is hardly famed for his Euro-enthusiasm, but his speech in Tokyo was amazingly positive: "If the euro brought benefit to its members, we would not let Britain lose by staying out." Now the Foreign Office will tell you that he was trying to calm nerves with the bosses of Nissan - who have threatened to invest elsewhere if we stay out of the single currency. But as an old union ally, he was surely also talking to the workers, trying to reassure sceptical unions to give the Government the benefit of the doubt, and avoid planting themselves irrevocably in the "No" camp. Whether it will be enough to stave off a scrap in Brighton, we'll find out this week.

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