His message has been reinforced by chancellor Gordon Brown whose public spending plans have been hit by the stock market crisis. The treasury is more than£1bn deeper in deby than Mr Brown had forecast. The financial crisis has hardened ministers' determination not to give way to the Fire Brigades Union, which has rejecteda 4% pay increase and holding out for 40%.
Last week, Mr Blair told a private meeting of Labour MPs: 'Just because there's all this going on with Iraq, don't think I'm not completely focused on public services reform because this is what will win us the next election'.
Ministers privately concede that the firefighters have public opinion on their side now, but predict that it will slip away as the strikes persist. Local government minister Nick Raynsford has urged firefighters to put their faith in a report of the future of the fire service, headed by George Bain, former head of the Low Pay Commission. He is expected to suggest that fire authorities should be merged to cut administrative costs, with the money saved added to pay. His report is expected on 11 December.