Page last updated at 19:17 GMT, Tuesday, 27 May 2008 20:17 UK

Can road users expect a U-turn?

By James Landale
Political correspondent, BBC News

Cars on the motorway
Any decision on road taxes is likely to be a few months away

If you go to the cinema these days, before the film starts, they sometimes play you a brief cacophony of sounds to let you know how absolutely brilliant their digital sound system is.

This is followed by some deep-voiced fellow telling you: "The audience is listening."

Well, on a Tuesday of protests by lorry drivers and criticisms of government plans to raise road tax for many, that was the message from ministers.

Both the justice secretary, Jack Straw, and the business secretary, John Hutton, fell over themselves to assure people that the government had its ear well and truly cocked over growing worries about fuel price rises.

"We are listening to public concerns about this," Mr Straw said, hinting darkly that if there were to be decisions about this, they might come at the pre-Budget report in the autumn.

They feel your pain

Having been in denial for so long about voters' concerns about the 10p tax rate abolition, ministers are not going to make the same mistake twice.

They feel your pain and are going to tell they do as often as they can.

But what decisions might the government make?

Well, do not expect too much too soon. The government caved in over the 10p tax issue - at a cost of 2.7bn - and won not a single extra vote at the Crewe and Nantwich by-election. Burned fingers all round.

Ministers also believe any concessions on fuel duty now would unnecessarily encourage rebel MPs opposed to plans to extend detention without charge to 42 days for terror suspects, due to be voted on in June.

And there is a feeling, too, that giving in to the lorry drivers would unnecessarily favour one sector of the economy when everyone is being hit by rising fuel costs.

Get it right

So, no big rebates on the horizon, blockades or no.

But what of the planned 2p rise in fuel duty, already postponed from April to next October, and the planned rises in vehicle excise duty (VED) for next year?

Well, government sources note that only 35 Labour MPs have signed a Commons motion calling for the retrospective VED rises to be scrapped - hardly a majority.

There is no legislation needed to introduce the changes, so there is no politically crucial crunch vote in the offing, and the tax rises do not come into force until next year.

So there is time for the government to get this right.

"Alistair doesn't want to make policy on the hoof on this," said one source.

But that said, like his colleagues, Chancellor Alistair Darling is letting everyone know that he is listening.

He has already met groups of Labour MPs to discuss VED and he has got more meetings in the pipeline.

So, many Labour MPs are now convinced that a fuel duty/VED U-turn is on the cards.

But we might have to wait until the autumn until we see it.

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