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Monday, 2 December, 2002, 22:19 GMT
Q&A: Have firefighters backed down?
The Fire Brigades Union has called off a second eight-day strike and is going to the conciliation service Acas to try to resolve its pay dispute. BBC political editor Andrew Marr assesses whether this is a sign of the union backing down.

Q: Is this a sign of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) weakening?

The government regards this as the first crack in the dyke.

It has been a long "who blinks first" type of confrontation.

The armed forces have coped enormously well and the government has indicated they were ready to carry on and do this again and again and again.

Ministers believe with an enormous amount of pressure from inside the trade union movement as well, the FBU has blinked.

Has this been due to sustained government pressure on the union?

It has often been said about this government that it is at its worst and weakest when Tony Blair and Gordon Brown disagree, but it is at its strongest when they are completely shoulder to shoulder and agree.

On this issue Mr Blair and Mr Brown, and indeed every other minister, has been absolutely solid that they would not conceive of giving in to 40% and would not consider a major pay increase above 4% unless the FBU agreed to modernisation.

With this solidarity, the indications are that the union has flinched.

Will the government respond to finding transitional money?

If the FBU agrees to real modernisation as the government sees it, that means job losses and other changes over the long term.

Then you have to ask if there is going to be a little bit of oil, a little bit of grease to get that through.

Of course no government, not least this one, is going to stop that happening for the want of a small amount of money in the short term.

The real question is are the firefighters prepared to change their working practices in return for a decent pay rise?

If they are, then I think anything is possible.

Are there indications that the public had more sympathy for the government than the firefighters?

It is always dangerous to make final judgements about passing opinion polls.

But if you look at the polling evidence it's clear, pretty much, that public opinion has been ratcheting very slowly in favour of the government's position.

The public have become more sceptical after learning more about the firefighters' working practices, rosters and so on.

That does not mean that a lot of members of the general public are not behind the firefighters, because I think they are and if this goes to the wire, if this carries on for months and months, who knows what can happen.

But I think the best judgements are that the government feel they have won a bit of propaganda ground at the expense of the FBU.


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02 Dec 02 | Business

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