The breakdown unleashed a torrent
of spin and lashings of mixed metaphors from a furious government. The employers had put forward 'uncosted, half-baked proposals' that amounted to a bouncing 'blank cheque' which did nothing to deal with unmodernised practices 'set in formaldehyde'.
Fire-fighters' union leader Andy Gilchrist wrote to The Telegraph about the difficulties of dealing with 'an inflexible government seemingly unable to think on its feet and smell the coffee before 9am', a reference to John Prescott's alleged unavailability to sanction an early morning resolution to the negotiations.
The BBC described Gilchrist as
'a cannier operator than many give him credit for', noting he gave 'a calm and considered' explanation of his case in
a briefing with political journalists in the House of Commons. The success of
this was judged by the barometer of
Mr Prescott's anger in the Commons later that day, which was considerable.
This assured media handling came before Gilchrist's ill-considered statement that he wanted to 'replace' New Labour with 'Real Labour'. The Times reported the government's view that Mr Gilchrist had 'lost the plot', going on to predict that he 'could also lose the war'. Mr Gilchrist's TUC colleagues deserted him, if you believed The Sun, or rallied round, if you preferred The Mirror.
After a shaky start, the government spin machine made wide use of the media to promote the argument that the army was coping magnificently, running the proposed joint control room, when not sitting around all night playing cards and drinking tea to demonstrate the easy life of the average fire-fighter.
It all made an interesting case study
of the government's tortured and ambiguous relationship with the media. The Times commented that 'an effective politician needs a bogeyman' and
Mr Gilchrist was that man. There is no doubt the government was supportive
of The Mail, The Sun and other right-wing papers lambasting the fire-fighters.
Yet less than a week later those same papers venomously hounded Cherie Blair for her misguided alliance with an ex-con man. Feeling bruised by the inaccurate briefings from Downing Street over the affair, correspondents were heard to tell the prime minister's official spokesman: 'How can we believe anything you say?'
In the Christmas party game of mixed metaphors, those who live by the sword can be hoist by their own petard.
Partner, Grant Riches communication consultants