Francis Beckett

Just after 5.30 on November 4, the FBU’s London Region decided it would call off the November 5 strike on the terms available. 

At once I told Alan Jones at PA while Eddie Barrett rang round BBC Television, Sky and ITN to say general secretary Matt Wrack and I were getting into a taxi to 4 Millbank and would do the rounds of the studios. The BBC got back first: great, could they have Matt live at 6.30 to make the announcement on the London news? A BBC scoop.

So far, so good.  Then the taxi ground to a halt in Charing Cross Road, and the driver gave it as his professional estimate that we wouldn’t make Trafalgar Square by 6.30, let alone 4 Millbank. So the three of us (FBU research supremo Paul Hampton was with us) got out and walked. I set a brisk pace; Matt lagged a bit, clutched his phone and looked worried. Paul caught up with me to explain.

Apparently the wretched Ron Dobson, London’s chief fire officer, had gone on the ITN programme London Tonight and announced our strike was over.   

I knew London Tonight had their car outside LFB headquarters.  I’d asked them why it was there when we were at the TUC; they said that’s where they thought we were. 

Maybe they did – maybe no one there bothered to look at the operational note I’d sent.  But it crossed my mind that it might have been simply another indication of their priorities.  London Tonight was, after all, the programme on which where Simon Harris produced that dreadful report of the November 1 strike, which managed to suggest that Ian Leahair was somehow simply upended in a crush of unruly pickets, when actually there weren’t any unruly pickets and he was mown down by a strike-breaker’s fire engine.  Maybe, I thought, London Tonight only wanted the employer’s view.

Either way, it was a problem.  Dobson announcing the end of our strike was either malicious, suggesting he wanted the strike to go ahead, or amazingly stupid, because any fool could see it would make it politically ten times harder for Matt to go on air and say the strike was over.

There was worse.  Dobson appeared to be casting doubt on the cornerstone of the deal – that our members would not be sacked on 27 November.

We walked through Trafalgar Square to Whitehall, where traffic seemed to be moving, so I hailed another taxi.  By then Matt was locked into a series of furious calls.  I should have paused, but by then I was thinking first and foremost of the marvellous media opportunity, the chance you so seldom get to put your case.

A frantic call from the BBC – how close are you? – and I told them: just 30 seconds away.  The taxi pulled up and there were waiting cameras to bring us into the building – they were making a big deal out of the dramatic nature of this event, in homage to their scoop of getting the news before Sky and ITN. They did not yet know that the news was not quite what it seemed.  Even I thought things were simpler than they were.  I learned better quite fast.

I got out and greeted the reporter, Paul paid the taxi, and Matt, still clutching his mobile phone, retreated behind a line of bicycles.  The cameraman, who was expecting Matt to enter the building in a metaphorical shower of flashlights, followed him there, and so did I. 

Matt’s first instinct was that he could not say anything.  Mine was that the show had to go on.

We worked out a line in a few seconds: we hope the strike is over, but Dobson may have torpedoed it. 

Quickly Into the BBC studio so as to hit the first half of the programme.  He produced the line: it sounded fine, just a little hesitant sometimes. 

After that I’d promised him to BBC Worldwide, Radio 5, Sky, ITN, in that order (I’m still angry with ITN’s London Tonight) but Matt didn’t want to do any more interviews.  “I’m waffling” he said. He was, but it was high grade waffle.

It was now 6.50 and Radio 5 went off air at 7 and was desperate to get him on.  Paul and I persuaded him to do that and then BBC News Channel and by then he was as comfortable as he could be with the inconclusive message which was all we could deliver, so the BBC reporter shepherded us upstairs to Sky, still with BBC cameras following. 

The BBC cameraman came into the Sky studio, and the Sky reporter sent them out with a flea in his ear.  The BBC reporter stayed until he too was told to wait outside, protesting that he’d faithfully delivered us to Sky’s studio and had hoped for better treatment. 

As Matt waited in the Sky studio, Paul took the call on Matt’s mobile that said the deal was done, the strike really was cancelled.  We managed to get this to Matt a second or two before he was on air.  I’ve never seen a man relax so fast.  Two Sky interviews, a special for the BBC to compensate for their lost scoop, then downstairs to ITN where a lone member of staff wondered who on earth we are, discovered we were due there an hour previously, and recorded an interview.

Then the three of us took ourselves off for fish and chips at the Westminster Arms.  It felt like a celebration.