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Thursday, 14 September, 2000, 14:18 GMT 15:18 UK
Blair faces heavy price for fuel gamble
Tony Blair
Putting his reputation on the line
By BBC News Online Political Correspondent Nick Assinder.

Tony Blair took a huge gamble when he declared on Tuesday that petrol deliveries would start getting back to normal within 24 hours.

When that deadline passed there were few who were confident enough to go that far, and the prime minister's credibility took a severe knock.

Another day of severe disruption and continuing blockades would have certainly sparked a serious threat to his authority.

But, as he made his third statement on the crisis in as many days, it appeared he had escaped the worst by the skin of his teeth. Many of the blockades are being lifted and more petrol tankers are hitting the roads.

But, while the initial crisis may be receding, real damage has already been done to the government's credibility and the bigger tests still lie ahead.

Anger at ministers

In the short term there is the continuing fuel drought which is likely to last for weeks rather than days. So there is still the real prospect of more cancelled hospital operations, job lay-offs and even some food shortages.

And, of course, motorists will still find it virtually impossible to fill up their tanks. Such disruption will challenge the public support for the action by the truckers, farmers and taxi drivers.

But, with the majority of the blockades lifted, it is likely that anger will be turned against ministers for somehow failing to get things back to normal overnight and for causing the crisis in the first place.

The surprise decision by the oil companies to announce increases in petrol and diesel also further angered the protestors and ordinary motorists.

And it had clearly infuriated the prime minister who declared he just "could not understand" what they were up to. The move seemed almost designed to escalate the crisis on the very day it was coming to an end.

Mr Blair is already angry at the behaviour of the multi-national oil companies - which have at times appeared immune to the concerns of individual governments across Europe.

There have been suggestions they were refusing to take strong enough action in the first days of the dispute to get tankers out of the depots.

And it is clear the prime minister planned to give them a flea in their ear.

Secondly, despite the government's determination to stand firm in the face of "intimidation", it has been badly hit by the demonstrations.

The crisis took Mr Blair completely by surprise, despite the fact that public anger at rising fuel prices had been building for weeks.

And there has been the overriding impression that there has been little ministers could actually do to get a grip on things.

Even as the blockades were lifting it appeared the drivers' decision to call off their protests had more to do with public opinion than government action.

Government's PR defeat

There has been massive support for the action - particularly in middle England - but warnings that, if it continues, there will be real suffering and even deaths, seem to have hit home.

In pure PR terms, the government appears to have lost this one hands down. But the dispute has also highlighted the government's tax and spending policies.

The Tories have been attacking Mr Blair over his "stealth taxes" for months, but the fuel crisis has forced ministers to admit that they raised taxes in order to pour cash into public services.

Shadow Chancellor Michael Portillo has now announced, to some surprise, that a Tory government would have abandoned the fuel escalator - which was brought in by the previous Tory government then increased by Labour before finally scrapping it last year.

And Chancellor Gordon Brown's continued insistence that the fuel price is all to do with the escalating cost of oil is wearing a bit thin. He will now be forced to examine the whole issue of fuel taxes.

The truckers have warned him that, unless he cuts them within 60 days, the dispute will be back on.

It seems highly unlikely the government will do that. But it seems inconceivable that the issue will not now be addressed in the chancellor's autumn statement in November.

Price to be paid

There has been much talk from Mr Blair and Mr Brown about listening to what the truckers have said and that has been widely interpreted to mean they will be looking at the tax regime in time for the next, pre-election budget.

And in his most recent statement, Mr Blair insisted he was ready to listen to and take into account the demonstrators' concerns.

His statement that there would be no "short term fix" for the problem was seen by many as a clear signal that changes will be announced in the autumn statement.

Whether that will be enough remains to be seen, but ministers will desperately want to avoid a recurrence of the action and go into a "winter of discontent" just months before the general election.

The blockades have undoubtedly presented Mr Blair with his worst crisis since he was elected - despite all the other buffetings he had been subjected to before the summer break - and many fear he and his government have been badly damaged by it.

And if the much-needed middle England voters decide to express their anger at fuel prices through the ballot box, Mr Blair may yet pay a heavy price.



See also:

12 Sep 00 | UK Politics
14 Sep 00 | UK
12 Sep 00 | UK Politics

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