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Friday, 10 November, 2000, 16:42 GMT
Fuel protesters find the road can get rocky
Two months ago, everything seemed to go right for the fuel protesters. Now things are not running so smoothly. BBC News Online asks: What's happened?

With their pickets of oil refineries, the fuel protesters seemed to have wrong-footed the government and won huge public support. What has changed since September?

  • Public support

    Sympathy seems to be waning. When drivers were delayed by go-slow convoys staged around the country in September, they would typically toot in support, rather than vent their spleen.

    Tractors and lorries in convoy, 10/11/00
    Driving force: Where did the protest go?
    Yet the tide of public opinion appears to have turned, says media commentator Roy Greenslade.

    "I don't think the public understood the issues previously, but now the government has been able to bring those out."

    In addition, the government and the media has pinned the protests on the heads of a few men, such as People's Fuel Lobby (PFL) chairman David Handley and Welsh farmer Brynle Williams.

    The People's Fuel Lobby claims that newspapers, backed by the government, are running a propaganda campaign to discredit it.

    It certainly is true that several of the newspapers which were the strongest backers of the protest are now hostile or bored by it. The Daily Express, for one, said: "Wheels come off truckers' protest".

    The extent to which the public actually support an ongoing campaign will become clear in the next few days.

  • Jarrow pride

    Jarrow march
    Comparisons with the Jarrow March angered many
    The protesters themselves caused some anger when they announced plans to start their convoy in Jarrow, driving in the footsteps of the 1936 hunger marchers.

    Following opposition from civic leaders, who said the convoy could tarnish the image of the famous march, the protesters instead started from nearby Gateshead.

  • Enough hassle already

    Some commentators have said that, after weeks of disruption from train restrictions and floods, the last thing many people will want is anything which makes life more difficult. Is there any appetite for another petrol boycott, they have asked.

  • Police preparedness

    There is a much more robust attitude towards the protesters this time around. Police forces along the route made it clear that any breaches in the law will be dealt with swiftly.

    Flooded petrol station
    Flood chaos: Is public tolerance at low-ebb?
    Not only did Northumbria Police slap a 100-vehicle limit on the convoy around Newcastle; their colleagues in North Yorkshire have banned the protesters from entering the flood-hit city of York.

    London could also be no-go for the go-slow. Scotland Yard has said it will set up an "exclusion zone" around the city - should any vehicles make it to London, that is.

  • Government concessions

    In his pre-Budget report this week, Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown included a two-year freeze on diesel duty, a 3p-a-litre duty cut for low sulphur fuel and cuts of up to 2,000 in road tax for lorries.

    That may not have given the demonstrators exactly what they were demanding, but he may have taken the wind out of their sails.

  • Arguments between protesters

    When fuel protesters said they would give Mr Brown 60 days to meet their demands, they were giving the government valuable time to organise its response - and giving their own coalition ample time to fall apart.

    David Handley
    David Handley: Figurehead or fall guy?
    Splits, personality clashes and recriminations among the protesters marked the run-up to Gordon Brown's pre-Budget announcement.

    Divisions between two key figures in the September protests, Mr Williams and Mr Handley, have been played out with particular vehemence.

    The Daily Mail said the two men headed "warring factions", and were eagerly trading insults.

    Mr Handley was stung by the accusation that he was "nothing more than a media junkie".

    The PFL leader and Mr Williams, who led the blockade at the Stanlow oil refinery in September, are at odds over how the protests should progress, with the latter fearing any talk of disruption or direct action will alienate the public.

    Pumps run dry
    Blockade or bust: Protesters are split over tactics
    "Consultation, not confrontation," said Mr Williams, calling on the convey to disband.

    Lenny Johnson, spokesman for the Hauliers and Farmers' Alliance echoes these concerns, saying none of his group's members would join the "go-slow" convoy.

    "We have had strong support form the public until now but I am worried that this might turn things against us."

    Even Mr Handley is said to have had doubts about "Jarrow 2000" and its London rally, worried that he may find himself "sitting in the middle of Hyde Park with one little old lady and a dog for company".


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