Fuel for thought: Where do we go from here?

Click to follow

As the tankers rolled out from depots in increasing numbers yesterday all the main players started to calculate their next move after the most tumultuous week Britain has experienced for years.

As the tankers rolled out from depots in increasing numbers yesterday all the main players started to calculate their next move after the most tumultuous week Britain has experienced for years.

For the Government, the main task, greater even than painting a positive gloss on the events, was to ensure that the blockades and near-collapse of national life so narrowly averted never happened again.

Then there was the small matter of the 60-day deadline given the Government by the protesters, who are, according to every available barometer of opinion, supported by the overwhelming majority of the country.

For once, the focus of the Government's thinking was directed to real, hard, logistical strategy, and not any species of spin. The Home Secretary, Jack Straw, the man who conceded that the Government had been caught this week unawares, was yesterday taking on the task of ensuring that the same, at least in terms of fuel supplies, would never happened again.

It might have occurred to him that a week ago such an assignment would have seemed the stuff of television disaster dramas. But so much had changed in just seven days.

It was a week ago on Thursday that Tom Houghton was standing with 300 other farmers in the stalls at St Asaph's cattle market in Wales as Britain's most widespread demonstration in decades began to take shape.

While the discontent had been growing for some time, the decision to act was spontaneous; after months of growing despair in the farming community, there was an uncommon militancy among the men and women crowded into the auction ring that evening.

"As you might imagine, the atmosphere was electric," said Mr Houghton, a member of Farmers for Action UK (FFA).

That night, led by Mr Houghton and his fellow FFA members Brnlye Williams, Hilary Whitaker and Paul Ashley, the men from North Wales and the surrounding area decided to act.

A flurry of phone calls were made - one to a farmer with five large tractors that could be used as a blockade - and then the demonstrators set off for the Stanlow oil refinery at Ellesmere Port.

Almost a week later - having inspired demonstrations around the country that brought Britain to a halt and the Government having endured its worst domestic crisis since coming to power three years ago - the demonstrators at Stanlow decided it was time to go home.

Their point had been made, and, with allegations that their actions were now putting lives at risk, they did not want to lose their public support. They led the much-heralded return to normality.

But they are adamant that this is not the end of the matter. "We have told the Government they have 60 days. We want a response in 60 days," said the haulier Nigel Kime as his wife drove him back to his transport business in Boston yesterday morning, having been on a picket line at Immingham since last Saturday.

"We have also said we want a meeting within the next five or six days. If they can't find time to see us within the next five or six days then it is bad news." It is difficult to assess the threat of further action. The demonstrators claim that next time they would be better organised and there would be more people.

The Government, meanwhile, is adamant that it will not tolerate a repeat of such action. Mr Straw admitted somewhat unnecessarily yesterday that the Government had been caught out by the level of protest. "This has turned out to be new phenomenon in protest," he said.

Mr Straw is the convener of the taskforce responsible for preventing any future fuel crisis. The minister's committee will be drawn from government officials, oil company executives and police chiefs.

Mr Straw said yesterday that the taskforce was about "public order, public safety and above all ensuring a free flow of petrol into our economy and our society".

Mr Straw said one of the key questions was the arrangements within the oil companies for co-ordination and crisis management.

There was no shortage of advice for him from other quarters. Brian Donohoe, Labour MP for Cunninghame South, said the priority of the taskforce should be to put a "trigger in place" so that if the protest were repeated, the Government could act immediately.

He said the taskforce should discuss whether the Government should have the power to ensure garages carry enough petrol stock to counteract panic buying. "Allowance must be made for people stockpiling petrol, with more stocks in garages. I was appalled that garages ran out so quickly," he said.

Mr Donohoe, a member of the Transport Select Committee, added that the taskforce should explore whether the Army should have been given a greater role in transporting petrol to essential services.

Ministers are also planning to introduce a regulatory body for the oil industry - a device to remind oil executives that they should be aware of profiteering and any possible collusion with protesters.

The meetings with oil executives are to continue on an almost daily basis and Cobra - the emergency planning committee which advises Downing Street - is likely to continue to make recommendations.

The Government, in addition to taking advice from the police about the nature of the demonstrations, is likely to have asked the Special Branch to look at the key protesters to see whether they are anything other than farmers and hauliers.

But there is also a growing sense within the Government that, while it could not afford to lose face by giving into the demonstrators, it cannot, equally, afford to ignore their demands for a reduction in fuel costs. A ministerial source said yesterday: "It would be surprising if Gordon Brown's pre-budget report does not have something to soothe the protesters' anger."

Yesterday the oil companies remained extremely sensitive to suggestions that they had not done enough to keep fuel moving. Despite this, however, no senior oil company executives were brought forward to try to convey their message to the country's petrol-less millions, or counter persistent allegations of collusion with other oil companies and the picketing hauliers.

Meanwhile, back on their farms and on the highways of Britain, the protesters who brought the country to a halt are waiting patiently. Sixty days is not such a long time.