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Sir Bernard Ingham, who was by the then-prime minister’s side as she battled Arthur Scargill’s National Union of Mineworkers in the 1980s, accused unions that are now poised to go on strike of being the “enemy within”.

The RMT union last week voted in favour of strike action which could plunge Network Rail and 13 operating companies into chaos from mid-June. Services could be slashed to just a fifth of the normal weekday timetable.

Former press secretary Sir Bernard had clear advice for the PM: “Don’t give an inch. These people are trying it on and they have no conscience.

“There’s the dangerous situation in Ukraine, the economy is badly damaged by Covid, and look at them – their totally cynical disregard for any values whatsoever. They are the enemy within, I’d say.”

Last week members of the largest civil service union, PCS, also voted for strike action over a two per cent pay offer.

There is mounting concern that rocketing inflation will spur more trade unions to call strikes in the months ahead if demands for major pay increases are refused.Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, used a Sunday Express interview to send a simple message to the public: “When it comes to the trade unions like the RMT, who are trying to hold people to ransom and to prevent them travelling to work, we are on your side.”

He said the Prime Minister is determined to bring inflation back under control by “resisting demands for big pay rises”.

Mr Gove added: “I think in a good workplace if you have good union leaders they can help ensure that everyone is working for a common purpose.

“Unfortunately there are some people in the union movement who are bent on confrontation and have a hard-Left agenda.”

On Friday the RMT called off planned strike action on June 3 – during the Queen’s Jubilee weekend – at London’s Green Park and Euston Tube stations.

Former policing minister Sir Mike Penning warned the RMT against alienating rail users, saying: “They need to be really careful that they don’t bite the hand that feeds them.

“They work hard and they get paid very well but holding the country to ransom will lose public support.”

He added: “Of all the people that are up for a fight, it would be the PM.”

Lauren Maher of the Centre for Policy Studies said trade unions must not be allowed to “paralyse the country” and argued the Government “mustn’t succumb to strikers’ demands and further add to the costs of public services”.

Warning of the damage rail strikes could cause, she said: “After the pandemic, commuter numbers have fallen off a cliff and they aren’t coming back – leaving a gaping hole in the finances.

“Strike action could be enough to tip the rail industry over the edge, and only proves further the need for radical reform across the sector to improve the model for the modern age.

“With costs already spiralling for passengers on a system that doesn’t suit their needs, adding to those costs or making the experience worse for passengers won’t be met with much sympathy.”

Robert Oulds of the Bruges Group, whose founding president was Lady Thatcher, urged the PM to stand up to the RMT. He said: “The RMT have for years created misery for families and commuters alike and their excessive and unreasonable demands have nearly bankrupted Britain’s infrastructure.”

The RMT declined to respond to Sir Bernard and Mr Gove’s remarks but insisted it wants a negotiated settlement and there is “no political or hard-Left agenda,” adding: “It is about winning a fair deal for our members who have just given us an overwhelming mandate to win a pay rise and job security for them on the railways.”

Home Secretary Priti Patel is also heading for a showdown with union leaders over plans to hand control of fire services to directly elected politicians such as mayors and police commissioners.

She says radical change is needed after fire∑brigades were accused of failing to support vaccination efforts during the Covid crisis.

Ms Patel said: “The need to improve the emergency response of fire and rescue services to a major incident is compelling.”

But the Fire Brigades Union has vowed to fight the proposals.

General secretary Matt Wrack said: “Putting this power in the hands of one person is not in the interest of the public, nor firefighters, and is a recipe for confusion.”

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