Ministers' anger at failure of talks

By Andrew Grice,Barrie Clement
Friday 22 November 2002 01:00

There was dismay in the Government last night at the failure of talks aimed at heading off the eight-day strike by firefighters.

Ministers were privately critical of some local authority employers for floating the idea of a 16 per cent rise and then appearing to make a lower offer when the negotiations got under way yesterday. "We don't know what the employers are playing at; it's megaphone negotiating," said one government source.

The Government had naturally hoped to avoid a second strike. Recognising that an eight-day stoppage would be much more dangerous than last week's 48-hour strike, ministers have put in place more detailed contingency plans, including the use of civilians to cross picket lines to release red engines from fire stations.

The hardline message from the Government last night was that "public safety must come before the sanctity of the picket line". Although Tony Blair would not lose much sleep over this, some ministers – such as John Prescott – will instinctively feel uncomfortable.

In the battle ahead, the Cabinet will be anxious to maintain a united front. But there are important differences simmering beneath the surface. Mr Prescott, whose department is responsible for the fire service, has taken a more conciliatory line towards the firefighters than Mr Blair and the Chancellor, Gordon Brown.

The Deputy Prime Minister, who has worked hard behind the scenes to bring the employers and the union together, has been irritated by the hawkish stance of Downing Street and the Treasury, which he believes has undermined his efforts to resolve the dispute.

"John has played a blinder – things would have been much worse without him," said one ally. "But the mixed messages from the Government have not helped him."

Mr Prescott was furious when Mr Blair privately dubbed the FBU leadership as "Scargillite" and is believed to have told the Prime Minister to stop such "rhetoric". The Blair comments reinforced the claims by the FBU that a group of ultra-Blairites in Downing Street were aching for a chance for the Prime Minister to emulate Margaret Thatcher's year-long battle with the miners in 1984-85.

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