As the spectre of a public sector strike looms large, all sides will be trying to ensure that their media message does not undermine the delicate diplomacy behind the scenes. At the heart of the dispute is the unsustainable level of public sector pensions. The current arrangement requires the taxpayer to contribute billions of pounds to plug the gap and maintain incredibly generous levels of pension payouts that can no longer be afforded.
A handful of Conservative MPs relish a fight but the Government needs to keep the focus on pensions and prevent the row from being seen as a broader political showdown with the unions. Breaking the grip of the union movement in Britain was an important achievement of the Thatcher government but times have changed. The unions are not the threat they once were and there is a difference between union leaders and their members. Conservatives should remember that around 30 per cent of trade union members actually vote Conservative and many will be very reluctant to strike. The last thing the Government should do is send hostile signals to such moderate members.
The union leaders want to inflate the talk of strikes in order to give themselves a stronger negotiating position, but they have a difficult balancing act to perform. Some hardline union activists might crave a showdown with a Conservative-led Government, but they cannot be confident of carrying their more moderate membership with them.
The stand-off has also caused a dilemma for Ed Miliband. His opportunistic instincts mean he would naturally want to support the strike, even though the last Labour government had already started out on a similar course on public sector pensions. But Labour will not want to repeat the mistake that Kinnock made with the miners. Then, the Labour Party ended up in a position of reluctant support for a strike it knew could not be won. Hence Ed Balls' bizarre formula last weekend, which urged the unions not to strike 'because it's what George Osborne wants'. It would do better if it were brave enough face tough choices on pension policy.
George Eustice is Conservative MP for Camborne and Redruth and a former press secretary to David Cameron.