The Prime Minister's chief spin doctor Alastair Campbell has mistakenly claimed that I'm giving the Fire Brigade Union PR advice. I am flattered because to be associated with such a brilliant campaign can do me no harm. As one commentator put it: 'The firefighters' PR effort has made Alastair Campbell's mob look like a Dad's Army retreat from Dunkirk'. What Campbell and his pathetic spin machine can't get their head round is that firefighters putting their own case is ten times more effective than someone like me doing it.
The FBU may be a tiny union, but it realised months ago that if it was to be involved in a strike then members on the picket line would be its most effective communicators with the public. The union has ensured - through its own communications network involving the internet and text messaging - that members are all singing off the same hymn sheet. How many times have you heard a firefighter ask: Why is an MP worth 40 per cent but the firefighters aren't? When it became clear on Sunday morning that Prescott was saying something different from Brown, by lunchtime every firefighter on the picket line was saying that the Government was giving out a confused message. The media actually picked up on this from the picket line.
One of the firefighters' most effective PR weapons has been the tooting car horn. Not only does this boost their morale, but every time the TV reporters do their live 'two-way', the continuous hooting prevents them from saying that the public aren't in full support.
It amazes me that some commentators are still saying the big problem for the FBU is that it will lose public support during a strike. The Guardian's poll showed that public support actually increased during the first two-day strike. The firefighters' decision to cross their own picket lines if lives were at risk obviously helped. This wasn't a cynical PR stunt either, they actually believe it their duty to save lives - strike or no strike.
A testament to the firefighters' PR skills is that they forced the Prime Minister to intervene personally in the dispute - something he desperately wanted to avoid.
Blair still doesn't understand what he is up against. His spin doctors told us that his address to the press - not to Parliament, significantly - was designed to go above the heads of the union leaders and talk to firefighters and their families. I know Blair has been out of the country, but someone in Downing Street could have told him that the firefighters support their union and their leader Andy Gilchrist a lot more than Blair's MPs support him.
My instinct is that the Government has taken such a kicking from the firefighters and the media that it is now keen to settle. It could have settled last week if it had not taken its eye off the ball, or if Prescott had bothered to get out of bed. The deal brokered by the moderate TUC General Secretary could easily have been 'spun' as a victory for the Government, or at least a draw. The FBU had actually signed up for binding arbitration on the so-called 'modernisation' agenda, and all pay above four per cent was dependent on agreement from both sides.
The problem seems to be that the Government no longer has a single chain of command, and Campbell has lost the plot. As I've said before, it's time for Campbell to call it a day - the firefighters have shown he's no longer up to the job.