LONDON - Desperate attempts to end the British Airways cabin crew strike were being mounted by Government ministers as the Labour Party battled to prevent the dispute from wrecking its preparations for the general election, expected in May.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown's officials were in close touch with Tony Woodley, joint general secretary of the Unite union, throughout yesterday amid hopes a settlement could be reached that would prevent the action spreading into next weekend.

But sources close to the dispute said there was no basis for a deal and no further talks were scheduled.

Yesterday the Conservatives turned up the pressure on Labour over the strike and its links with Unite by beginning a new advertising campaign showing Brown dressed as a BA pilot under the headline "Gordon is doing sweet BA".

The political row surrounding the dispute deepened after it emerged that Unite is to give the Labour party £4 million ($8.5 million) to help fund its general election campaign.

The union agreed the deal with the Labour leadership a few weeks ago as Labour desperately sought the cash to mount an effective campaign against the Conservatives.

The £4 million represents half of the money the unions have been asked for by Labour.

Up to £2 million is said to have been requested from Unison, the public services union, and another £2 million from the GMB general union.

Eric Pickles, the Conservative party chairman, commented:

"When travellers are facing the effects of Unite's militant action it is beyond belief that Brown can have the brass neck to keep his crumbling Labour Government afloat with cash from these union barons."

Labour concerns about the strike will be reinforced by an ICM poll for BBC Radio 4's Broadcasting House, which shows only 25 per cent of people say the action is justified, 60 per cent say it is unjustified and 15 per cent are undecided.

BA began a strike-breaking operation of unprecedented scale yesterday, although Unite claimed the airline had managed to fly only a third of its normal scheduled departures.

The airline claimed that half of the cabin crew rostered to work yesterday had turned up for their shifts and announced the reinstatement of more flights.

But one Unite official said the disruption caused, with hundreds of flights cancelled over the weekend, would be a wake-up call to BA's chief executive, Willie Walsh.

"The next three days will determine whether or not we get back around the table," the official said.

Passengers at BA's Terminal 5 base at Heathrow airport were greeted by an array of unusual airline names on departure boards, as the likes of Transavia, Astraeus and Titan were brought in to carry passengers to their destinations.

The airline expected to fly 65 per cent of passengers, or about 120,000 people, over the weekend. A spokesman said that operations at London Heathrow were "continuing to go well".