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Monday, 21 October, 2002, 12:07 GMT 13:07 UK
Blair testing Thatcher's laws
Green goddess fire engines
Ministers are planning for a crisis

The 1979 winter of discontent not only killed off the last Labour government, it also ensured Margaret Thatcher could introduce some of the toughest union laws ever seen in Britain.

Tony Blair is now having to draw on exactly those laws to tackle what could easily escalate into another winter of industrial grief.

The firefighters' strike has put the government firmly on the spot over its attitude to the unions and, most importantly, the public sector unions.

Fire Brigades Union leader Andy Gilchrist
Gilchrist is unbending
For the first time since he was elected to Downing Street, the prime minister is having to deal with concrete issues over secondary action, the legitimacy of properly constituted ballots, and even outlawing strikes in essential services.

The unions, meanwhile, seem determined to test exactly how far "their" government is prepared to go to defeat them.

Because, despite the occasional, half-hearted attempt to suggest the strike is for the local authorities to sort out, Downing Street is in this one up to its nostrils.

Dodgy ballot

The prime minister's first action after the strike ballot - conducted under Thatcher laws - was to brand the action "dangerous and wrong".

Downing Street spokesmen have even vaguely hinted that the ballot was dodgy.

It may have been perfectly legal but, they point out, members were not asked whether they backed the government's independent review.

Mr Blair then immediately re-constituted the COBRA crisis team to hammer out the contingency plans for dealing with the strikes when they hit.

That team, named after cabinet briefing room A in Downing Street, will eventually include the prime minister, cabinet members, the army and even the intelligence services.

On Monday it had a "dry run" meeting hosted by fire services minister Nick Raynsford.

Health and safety

But once this meeting is gathering daily it will not only have to deal with the practical problems of how to organise Green Goddess coverage but also highly political issues.

Minister Nick Raynsford
Raynsford: abandon strike call
First off there is the suggestion by Bob Crowe's rail union that there will be underground stoppages because of health and safety issues raised by lack of fire cover.

Even if the union does not go down that path, individual underground workers may. Others in public and other services may follow suit.

The question for Tony Blair is whether this is secondary action of the sort once prevalent but since outlawed by the Thatcher administration.

Next there is the whole question of whether strikes in essential services should be outlawed.

Most believe the prime minister is hugely attracted to that idea.

And how else can the suggestion that a properly constituted piece of action is "dangerous and wrong" be interpreted other than "and must be stopped".

No strike

It is quite likely that one of the things the prime minister would love to see from this dispute is a deal for the firefighters that includes a no strike agreement.

There is also the tricky problem of crossing picket lines - an issue that has already seen Mr Raynsford at odds with the prime minister.

Mr Raynsford said he did not want to see soldiers crossing picket lines so they could train on up-to-date kit.

The prime minister's spokesman was eager to play that issue down as "of secondary importance".

At the moment there is no sign that either side is ready to back down.

And the government clearly believes it cannot afford to lose this one as that would encourage other public sector workers to follow suit.

The outcome will further define this New Labour government's relations with the union movement.

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