A sensational bust-up today between Brian Coleman, Tory chairman of the London fire authority, and LBC radio presenter James O’Brien.
Listen here: it may be about fire engines but it’s captivating radio. (Start listening about 90 minutes in.)
To put it in context – last week Mr O’Brien (left) skewered Boris Johnson over the fire dispute, leaving the Mayor flummoxed on air and professing ignorance of Mr Coleman’s plans to axe 27 fire engines to save costs.
(I’m now told that City Hall won’t put Boris up for interview by James O’Brien again – and that Boris is being primed on the fire dispute for an appearance on Nick Ferrari’s LBC show at 9am on Friday.)
Last night brigade chiefs were overjoyed when an independent panel came down firmly on their side – suggesting the dispute between the brigade and the Fire Brigades Union over changes to shift patterns be remedied in a way that effectively handed victory to management. Not good if you are a firefighter who has lost two days’ pay by going on strike.
Under the panel’s proposals, the pattern of nine hour days and 15 hour nights would be replaced by one of two options – day shifts of 10.5 hours and nights of 13.5 hours, or 11-hour days and 13-hour nights.
Brigade chiefs are overjoyed because this would mean more time for community safety work – and also because the 10.5-hour dayshift option would see firefighters being told the night before a shift whether they were being sent to a different station to cover absent colleagues. This would save substantial amounts of overtime – a key consideration when the brigade is facing £60 million cuts over the next four years.
Brigade chiefs were so delighted with the resolution advisory panel’s recommendations that one described them to me as a “glorious victory” – with the effect that the FBU was “f***ed“. They remain ready to enforce the new contracts by sacking all 5,500 firefighters and re-employing them on new shift patterns.
But roll forward to today’s exchange. Mr O’Brien, who, on the occasions I’ve tuned in to LBC has displayed an excellent understanding of the fire dispute, managed to get Mr Coleman on his show despite accusing him of being “deceitful and dishonest” (Mr Coleman claimed last night on LBC that he wasn’t welcome on Mr O’Brien’s show, something Mr O’Brien rejected on air today).
What’s more, prior to the interview, Mr Coleman had apparently said of Mr O’Brien: “I would rather crawl naked through the streets of London than talk to that man.”
But the hour-long interview – punctuated by a “walk-out” and then return from Mr Coleman half-way through – effectively made clear that the £60 million of budget cuts will mean fewer firefighters and fire engines.
The debate is over whether this reduces the risk - ie the brigade’s ability to respond to fires and keep Londoners safe. Mr Coleman is adamant this will not be the case – the FBU disagrees.
In the exchanges, Mr O’Brien accused Mr Coleman of having a “fetishistic” wish to tackle the FBU in the same way that Margaret Thatcher destroyed the National Union of Mineworkers.
Before the interview, which was conducted in LBC’s Leicester Square studio at Mr Coleman’s request rather than down the phone, Mr O’Brien said (about Mr Coleman): “A controversial public figure who has told lies about me is demanding to lay down the law about the process in which he is prepared to talk to me.”
Asked during the interview whether he could guarantee that London would have the same number of firefighters and fire engines next Christmas, Mr Coleman said: “Of course not. No politician can guarantee the level of public service they are providing.”
The key point for Mr O’Brien was whether Mr Coleman had misled Boris about his plans for the fire brigade. Last week Boris told the London Assembly: “I’m assured there are no plans for reductions in front-line services.”
Mr O’Brien told me that the off-air bust-up during the break went as follows:
Brian: “Do you honestly think that Boris Johnson doesn’t known exactly what is going on and exactly what we’re doing?”
James: “So, he is hanging you out to dry?”
Brian: “Well, yes, that goes with the territory.”
Mr Coleman went into the show producer’s studio and demanded to know if the conversation had been recorded – something he believed would have been a breach of the rules.
He is said to have “visibly blanched”, no doubt at the thought of a Gordon Brown “bigoted woman” moment. But he returned to the studio after the break to take questions from callers – and stayed an hour despite having been booked for 15 minutes. He rejected Mr O’Brien’s request to repeat what he had said during the interval.
He is understood to believe Mr O’Brien to be “obnoxious” and claimed he was chasing audiences – the show is London’s most popular daytime phone-in, with a weekly reach of 408,000 people.
Mr Coleman told me: “Whenever I hear James O’Brien on the radio, the sound of flapping white coats comes to mind. He has been completely obsessed with the fire dispute and has turned into a complete lackey of the FBU.
“He is just the Brian Hayes of the day – Mr Angry. That gets him an audience – good luck to him. I think he fancies himself as some sort of a ‘shock-jock’.”
Mr Coleman said he jumped in a taxi to take him back to Westminster to collect his car after the interview. He said: “The cabbie said, ‘I heard you on the radio. You did very well. That O’Brien always twists things.’”
From the London Evening Standard