Conservative Diary

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The Coalition smiles back at the TUC snarl

By Tim Montgomerie

Last year I predicted that unions would "unleash hell" on a Tory government. They are just as eager for battle now.  Union leaders have been queueing up in the last 48 hours to threaten resistance to the Coalition's deficit reduction plans. Mark Serwotka promised “a campaign of resistance the like of which we have not seen in this country for decades”. Absurdly he warned that “not a single public sector job” should be cut. Bob Crow, who last week brought much of London Underground to a halt, urged a campaign of “civil disobedience”. The normally more moderate Brendan Barber, TUC General Secretary, warned this morning that Britain would be a "dark, brutish and more frightening place" if George Osborne's cuts go ahead.

Maude Green On Radio 4's Today programme Francis Maude set out* the Coalition's response to the unions' grandstanding (although he was much more diplomatic than me in the language he used). The Cabinet Office minister promised to listen carefully to the unions and said that the government was already holding regular meetings with union leaders. What the TUC needed to recognise, he said, was that six-out-of-ten Britons voted for the two parties that make up the Coalition and both of those parties were elected on a mandate to "eradicate the deficit". Mr Maude promised that everything would be done to protect frontline services and jobs but, he continued, if the government does not address the deficit, interest rates will increase and the economic recovery would be choked off. Asked if the Coalition was right to cut now, he said that George Osborne was following the advice of the Bank of England Governor and the 'cut early' approached had been endorsed by G20 finance ministers.

Maude's interview was well-judged. As Matt d'Ancona argues in the Evening Standard and Peter Hoskin blogs at Coffee House the battle is now on for the public's hearts and minds. Although Coalition unpopularity is inevitable, Maude and Letwin - who are leading the government's dialogue with the unions - understand that the public will side with the most reasonable and constructive side of the cuts-versus-no-cuts argument. Downing Street was quick to brief this morning that David Cameron wants to "get round the table" with the unions and engage.

The Coalition are resisting the advice of, for example, Policy Exchange who recommend that industrial relations laws be modernised now so that militancy can be defeated. For now, it's softly-softly. It's Coalition smiles versus union snarls. Much more than tactical positioning will be needed from ministers, however. Margaret Thatcher was very careful not to fight on too many fronts. Some Tory insiders fear that in the Coalition's breakneck reforming pace, and the decision to add health reform to an already ambitious programme, there is a risk of creating too many enemies all at once. It's certainly a high wire act.

* Listen again to Mr Maude's interview which begins at 8 minutes into this package.


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