You could make a case that the VAT changes to pasties were not a political blunder of any significant magnitude. Not so the petrol fiasco, where ill-judged comments by Francis Maude last week created a run on fuel supplies with thousands of forecourts left completely empty. Being on Britain’s motorways at the weekend was genuinely unnerving, with garage after garage out of petrol.
This morning it emerged that Maude is no longer directly in charge of the response and instead the energy department (Decc) is now responsible – although the prime minister still has “full confidence” in the Cabinet Office minister.
This morning’s Downing St briefing was a masterclass in understatement, with the response: “Clearly there was some increase in demand last week, fuel companies have been working to restore petrol stations and we understand they are making progress.” Decc’s new advice is that there is no need to queue at forecourts or “top up your tank” as there will not be a strike over Easter.
Yet there was never much prospect of an Easter strike, given that Unite must give 7 days notice of any industrial action. So why is Decc’s new advice so different to ministers last week, who urged the public to stock up on fuel – even to the extent of filling jerry cans?
The response seems a blatant attempt to douse the mood of public fear and prevent further stockpiling. It certainly seems at odds with the industry claim this morning (from the Retail Motor Industries Federation) that 30-50 per cent of forecourts remain empty in either petrol or diesel with few top-ups in the coming days.
The industrial dispute adjudication service Acas confirmed today that talks to avert a strike would commence on Wednesday.
William Hague has claimed Britain is now better prepared to withstand a strike because of the government’s actions; this might be best described as clutching at straws.