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Monday, 25 June, 2001, 13:56 GMT 14:56 UK
Blair and unions deal over dinner
Prime Minister Tony Blair
Blair will welcome the unions into No 10
Nick Assinder

When Harold Wilson had trouble with the unions he used to invite them into Downing Street for beer and sandwiches - or more often fish and chips - in the cabinet room.

Tony Blair and New Labour, needless to say, do things dramatically differently.

So union bosses lining up to berate the prime minister over what they see as creeping privatisation of the public services find themselves invited to dinner with a menu much more likely to include penne pasta with sun dried tomatoes and rocket salad.

But the basic idea is the same - get the unions to sit down in a relaxed atmosphere and either smooth their ruffled feathers, or tell them to get their tanks off your lawn.

Mr Blair has insisted he is not looking for a "punch up" over his plans to radically reform the public sector - so he is clearly looking to answer their fears and get them on board.

Former deputy Labour leader Roy Hattersley
Hattersley assaulted plans
But union bosses, senior Labour figures like former deputy leader Roy Hattersley and the left-leaning IPPR have all voiced serious concerns over his proposals and called for a rethink.

Meanwhile, ministers appear to be offering a softer line on the proposals and the prime minister's spokesman keeps talking about the need for a partnership

On the surface, it appeared the government had been taken aback by the strength of the opposition to the proposals and were starting to play the whole thing down. But there is another game going on here.

Heads down

During the general election campaign Mr Blair made several keynote speeches on his radical plans to revolutionise the public sector.

It was his "big idea" and, to many, he appeared to be relishing a fight with the big unions.

Those unions kept their heads pretty much down during the campaign in order to maximise Labour's chances of winning - but now they are free to speak out.

And, as a result, ministers' rhetoric appears to have significantly cooled leading to talk of a climbdown.

What many in Westminster suspect, however, is that Mr Blair knew exactly what he was doing during the campaign and factored-in a post-election row.

Unison workers
Unions deeply unhappy
The prime minister has constantly faced allegations that he is too cautious and lacking in any genuine radicalism.

He was determined to puncture that myth while, at the same time, proving he was tough enough to take on vested interests in the shape of the unions.

He even predicted that his proposals would cause him trouble.

Little detail

The tactic certainly switched the focus of the campaign in the closing days and threw the Tories even further onto the back foot.

The prime minister then followed through with a Queen's Speech centred on the reforms and further claims that they were going to be radical and troublesome.

It was pointed out at the time that there was precious little detail in the proposals - and that was at the heart of the IPPR report's claims.

But, it is claimed, now Mr Blair is firmly settled back into No 10 for up to five years he is happy to let a genuine debate rage on the plans so that some sort of consensus can be arrived at with the unions and other interested parties.

There will be some interesting and useful skirmishes along the way which will allow the prime minister to insist he has pushed ahead with his reforms and the union bosses to claim they have protected the interests of their members.

But, at the end of the day there will be reform of the public services - although most predict it will fall short of the revolution Mr Blair appeared to be offering before the election.

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See also:

25 Jun 01 | UK Politics
Blair warned over private funding
24 Jun 01 | UK Politics
Hattersley accuses 'contemptuous' Blair
24 Jun 01 | UK Politics
'Labour MPs uneasy on NHS plans'
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