David Blackburn

How will the government respond to Thursday’s strikes?

How will the government respond to Thursday’s strikes?
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Activity in Whitehall becomes more fevered as the day itself approaches. Michael Gove wants to see off the NUT with as little bloodshed as possible, honouring David Cameron’s decree that ministers tread softly. To that end, he has already written to headmasters urging them to keep calm and carry on. And this morning, news emerges that Gove is asking parents and retired teachers who have passed CRB checks to fill in on Thursday to ensure that children have a constructive day at school. The Department of Education has not yet approached former members of the flagship Teach First scheme to return to school for a day; it’s probably too late to do so on this occasion, but doubtless there will be others. Speaking to Andrew Marr earlier, Gove was clear that strikes should not inconvenience the public and that intemperate industrial action will damage the reputation of the teaching profession.

Elsewhere, some ministers are taking a sterner line. Francis Maude, the government’s chief negotiator with the unions, has been discretion itself, but now he has apparently threatened (£) the ‘Pilgrims’, union officials working in Whitehall offices who apparently cost more than £80m a year. Maude plans to withdraw public funding from these officials if strikes bring Britain to a halt. Maude’s position seems to be that the unions have the right to air their members’ grievances, but not if it aggrieves the general public. Beyond that measure, rumours of a change in industrial relations laws are now very widespread. It now seems likely that some efforts will be made to insist that union ballots are only binding above a certain threshold, a proposal that has extensive public support.

After the U-turns of recent weeks, a whiff of weakness has attached itself to Cameron’s government. The demise of Edward Heath is proof that the history of union success is a story of the exploitation of political weakness. Cameron is determined not to look weak.