Politics - John Kampfner asks if the firefighters went too far

The firefighters will set a precedent for industrial disputes in coming years. But though the govern

When trade union leaders met to lend their support to the firefighters, the venue for their gathering was unhappily symbolic. The TUC get-together was held at a stately home just outside Grantham, birthplace of you-know-who, crusher of the miners.

This new industrial dispute may end up having the same totemic significance as the pitched battles fought outside the collieries 20 years ago. Both sides have dug themselves into entrenched positions, to the consternation of a number of astute Labour MPs and moderate union officials who believe a strike has always been avoidable.

Several MPs have been warning Tony Blair and John Prescott's people about impending trouble since the early summer. The government waited until September before establishing a review led by Sir George Bain. By then, events were running their course.

"Relations have been allowed to deteriorate needlessly," says one government minister. "This has been rumbling on for six months," says one MP experienced in dealings with the unions.

The delay has been crucial, because this dispute is as much about the detail as the principle. Professor Bain, whose previous chairmanship of the Low Pay Commission gives him good credentials for the task, is already deep into his work.

He is not due to report until 11 December,

by which time the firefighters would be into their fifth period of strikes.

With the first 48-hour strike due on 29 October, it is now a race against time. According to people familiar with his inquiry, Bain is prepared to bring his conclusions forward. Blair is now considering asking him to do this, and behind the scenes moves are afoot to alter the sequencing of events. That could involve some form of interim announcement by Bain that might go some way to satisfying the firefighters' demands. Although one government member tells me "we couldn't live with anything annually into double figures", ministers would find it almost impossible to reject any of the conclusions, especially if a sizeable increase is phased in over several years and tied to changes in working practices.

For all the belligerent talk, few at the top of government are spoiling for a fight. Whatever desires the ultra-modernising fringe might have to confront the unions, wiser heads realise the stakes are too high for that. "If you're going to pick a fight, the last group you'd want to do it with is the fire brigade," says a minister.

So far, public opinion sympathises with the firefighters' broad position, if not the sum of their 39 per cent wage claim. If people die as a result of the strike, it is not clear that they, rather than ministers, would be blamed for their intransigence. The same right-wing newspapers goading the government into a confrontation now would quite happily turn on it if the situation got out of hand.

Officials in Downing Street privately accept the only possible bridge-builder is the TUC, which has set up a "contact group" with the Fire Brigades Union. Things have, however, already got off to a bad start. At a meeting at its Lincolnshire retreat on 22 October, the TUC described statements by government ministers as "monumentally unhelpful". In his presentation to the meeting, John Monks, the general secretary, was more forthright in backing the FBU than had been expected. "The more they tried to put pressure on the TUC and John to distance themselves from the FBU, the more determined we became," says one union official.

This dispute will set a precedent for industrial disputes in coming years. For Gordon Brown, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, it couldn't have come at a worse time - amid falling revenues and increases in borrowing or tax rises to plug the gaps. With jobs in abundance and billions flowing into public services, the circumstances have never been more opportune for union assertiveness.

Blair's depiction of the firefighters as "Scargillite" is meant to conjure up old memories. Downing Street asserts, correctly, that pay in the public sector is growing more quickly than in the private sector. But one or two years' minimal correction do not address decades of unfairness. The new militancy at the top of unionism has not occurred in a vacuum. It is a response to a growing sense of grievance that public sector workers did not share in the wealth of the mid- to late 1990s.

Blair has described the strike plans as "dangerous and wrong". Prescott has called the firefighters' pay claim as "simply indefensible". Even if they are right, these statements are incomplete. When was the last time our Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister or Chancellor used that kind of language to highlight the irresponsibility of boardroom remuneration committees awarding their millions of pounds of bonuses? That is the flaw in the government's case. It is only when Blair and his ministers join up the dots on fairness at work that their condemnation of the firefighters will carry moral weight.