The day the fuel ran out

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The Independent Online

The Prime Minister predicted last night that Britain's worst civil crisis since the late Seventies would be eased within 24 hours after claiming to have won assurances from oil bosses of an imminent resumption of fuel deliveries.

The Prime Minister predicted last night that Britain's worst civil crisis since the late Seventies would be eased within 24 hours after claiming to have won assurances from oil bosses of an imminent resumption of fuel deliveries.

Tony Blair said the situation that had brought large parts of Britain to a standstill would be "on the way back to normal" by this evening. He admitted a full return to normal conditions would take longer.

But last night, with around 90 per cent of Britain's petrol stations out of unleaded fuel, there was a large amount of confusion with some oil companies saying there was no such agreement. All the major suppliers were adamant that they would only restart deliveries once the safety of their drivers could be guaranteed.

Yesterday evening, a stern-faced Mr Blair told a press conference at No 10: "Everything is now in place to get the tankers moving. The oil companies are agreed that they must move supplies."

He said the police had agreed "to do all that was necessary" to ensure fuel supplies. Government sources disclosed that this could involve police escorts for tankers.

In the face of scenes not witnessed since 1978-79 "winter of discontent", the Prime Minister insisted that he would not give way to the protesters who had launched protests across the length and breadth of Britain.

He said government economic policy would not be "dictated by illegal blockades, pickets or direct action", adding "Were we to yield to that pressure, it would run counter to every democratic principle that this country believes in."

He said: "Whatever the strength of the feeling, there can be no excuse whatever for this type of action, which is hurting our people, businesses and emergency services severely. Legitimate protest is one thing. Trying to bring the country to a halt is quite another."

Last night police chiefs said they were ready to escort oil tankers through picket lines and break up any unlawful blockades. Peter Gammon, president of the Police Superintendents Association of England and Wales, said: "If oil companies want to deliver, we will facilitate their passage through the picket lines." He added: "We don't anticipate there are going to be serious public disorder problems."

Earlier, however, senior officers had warned against the use of heavy handed tactics, saying it could lead to a repeat of the situation miners' strike of the mid-Eighties and that police lives could be put at risk.

Mr Blair was forced to cancel the second day of a regional tour in Yorkshire to hold emergency talks at Downing Street with cabinet colleagues and police chiefs. He spoke to the chairmen of the major oil companies, including BP, Esso, Shell and Texaco to broker a deal to resolve the biggest domestic crisis since he came to power.

The Prime Minister also spoke on the telephone to Bill Morris, general secretary of the Transport and General Workers' Union, who promised to urge his tanker driver members to resume deliveries.

Mr Blair said he was not criticising the police's handling of the demonstrations, but said they had to deal with "quite serious intimidation" in some cases.

The emergency Privy Council order approved on Monday allows the Government to draft in the Army to secure fuel supplies for vital services. Asked whether troops would be used, Mr Blair replied the police presence was adequate to prevent the blockades.

Mr Blair asked oil industry leaders about the scale of the protests at each depot, pointing out that only a small number of people were present at some. He said later: "It cannot possibly be right that we have a very small number of people inflicting this amount of misery on the country as a whole. There is absolutely no reason now why fuel shouldn't be moving out today."

Mr Blair's aides said the oil bosses "showed concern about wanting to get the fuel out" but privately ministers were increasingly frustrated with their apparent reluctance to send out their tankers. One ministerial source admitted: "We are telling them to get on with it. We suspect they are quite happy for the Government to take the blame for the rise in prices. They are not losing money; the market has increased by what has happened."

Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, told the Trades Union Congress conference in Glasgow there would be "no quick fix" to bring down fuel duties. He is unlikely to decide on whether to cut the tax on fuel until he draws up the draft Budget he will unveil in November.

Mr Brown said it would be the "worst type of short termism" if the Government shifted its policy on fuel duties because of the recent increase in world prices. "We will listen, but we will not fall for the quick fix of making a tax policy this afternoon," he said.