Charlie Whelan says . . .

Don't believe it - "Government to do deal with firefighters"

Never in the history of industrial relations has a government so cocked up the handling of a dispute. Many people sympathetic to the firefighters were initially critical of the union's decision not to co-operate with the so-called independent inquiry. How right the Fire Brigades Union proved to be.

Rodney Bickerstaffe, the former Unison general secretary, was asked to go on the Bain inquiry into firefighers' pay, but refused when Andy Gilchrist, the FBU general secretary, told him that the union would still have to oppose Bain. How relieved Bickerstaffe must be that he had nothing to do with Bain's report. Never mind the insult of a 4 per cent offer in the first year; Bain had the nerve to say that the "firemen" should have more women in the brigade - something the union has been arguing in favour of for years. Bain's idea of a more family-friendly fire service is for firefighters to work more hours.

Behind all this nonsense is 10 Downing Street; and the man in charge of "giving the FBU a bloody nose" is ex-Times man Phil Bassett. Now an aide to Tony Blair, he was an industrial reporter for many years. You can presume, therefore, that the government knew perfectly well that such an insulting offer would result in a strike. So Blair wants a battle with the unions. Nothing new there, but I never thought that he would be so open about it.

The claim that a decent rise for the firefighters would trigger huge rises in the rest of the public sector is ludicrous. The NHS consultants - who spend most of their time in the private sector earning a fortune - were offered 20 per cent by this government. My guess is that the public will back the union and I hope Blair gets a bloody nose.