The prospect of a strike by fuel tanker drivers which could cripple petrol supplies grew closer today after union officials overwhelmingly rejected a proposed deal aimed at averting industrial action.
Around 60 Unite officials turned down the deal which was thrashed out during six days of talks between the union and representatives of six fuel distribution companies.
Motorists were urged not to panic buy fuel as Unite said it wanted a negotiated settlement and stressed that it had not yet decided whether to name dates for action.
The Government expressed disappointment with rejection of the deal with Energy and Climate Change Secretary Edward Davey saying that "any strike action would be wrong and unnecessary".
After the row flared last month the Government advised motorists to top up their cars with petrol and to store fuel in jerry cans, leading to panic buying and shortages of supplies.
There were chaotic scenes at garages as long queues built up, leading to criticism of the Government for the way they had handled the dispute.
Despite the rejection it is believed that progress was made on a number of issues including pensions, health and safety and training.
Diana Holland, assistant general secretary of Unite, said: "While there has been some progress it is clear that our members need more guarantees and assurances from the employers about their commitment to meaningful minimum standards.
"We remain committed to achieving a negotiated settlement that brings stability and security to a vital industry and gives this workforce, and the public, confidence that the race to the bottom is ending."
Unite officials have contacted the conciliation service Acas, which has been facilitating talks between both sides, and said it hoped employers would agree to hold fresh negotiations in the coming days.
Peter Harwood, Acas chief conciliator, said: "Naturally, we are disappointed at today's outcome, following the parties' intensive talks at Acas over the last two weeks. We are contacting the parties and the challenge now is to see if we can find a way forward."
The union will have to name strike dates, or other forms of industrial action, by Friday afternoon unless employers agree to extend the deadline.
Mr Davey said: "We are disappointed that an agreement has yet to be reached. We understand that these are complex issues but urge both parties to work towards a negotiated resolution with the support of Acas.
"The Government continues to believe that any strike action would be wrong and unnecessary."
A spokesman for Hoyer, one of the firms involved, said: "The decision by Unite to reject the proposals agreed between employers and the union after six days of constructive dialogue through Acas is a serious blow.
"The team from Hoyer, along with other key industry employers, engaged fully and professionally in these talks and remain open to negotiation with a view to achieving a positive resolution to this dispute and avoid the possibility of any damaging strike action by Unite.
"Having reached this point, Hoyer will now reflect on all available options.
"However, we have made comprehensive contingencies as a business and we remain committed to ensuring that despite any strike action by Unite, we make every effort, together with the armed forces, to maintain fuel supplies to a level that keeps disruption to business and the general public to an absolute minimum."
Brian Madderson, chairman of RMI Petrol, the trade association representing independent forecourt retailers in the UK, said: "We had hoped the discussions between Unite members and their employers would result in a resolution. We hope that further talks announced today will resolve the issues as soon as possible.
"RMI Petrol continues to offer their fuel retailing experience and expertise to the Government with regard to any contingency planning surrounding the possible strike action."
AA president Edmund King said: "This does not necessarily mean that there will be a strike as talks are likely to resume.
"Our message to drivers is to continue with their normal buying pattern for fuel.
"There is no shortage of fuel and we don't want to re-create another self-inflicted shortage."
The announcement came just hours after Prime Minister David Cameron and Labour leader Ed Miliband clashed in the House of Commons over the threat of a tanker strike.
Mr Cameron accused the Labour leader of "complete weakness" for failing to stand up to Unite, while Mr Miliband called on the PM and Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude to apologise for provoking panic-buying at the pumps when the prospect of a strike was first raised.
At Prime Minister's Questions in the Commons, Mr Miliband said: "I am not going to take any lectures on industrial relations from a Government and a Prime Minister that caused panic at the pumps. That is the reality.
"Let him apologise for the gross irresponsibility of the Cabinet Minster who caused that panic at the pumps."
Mr Cameron said Mr Miliband "won't take any lectures on the fuel strike because he is in the pockets of the people who called the fuel strike - they vote for his policies, they sponsor his Members of Parliament, they got him elected".
And the PM added: "He showed complete weakness when it came to the fuel strike."