The price Blair paid for being caught napping: £2.25bn and his invincible aura

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"We were caught napping once; we could not afford to be caught napping again," one Cabinet minister said yesterday as the Great Fuel Rebellion of 2000 ended with a whimper rather than a bang.

"We were caught napping once; we could not afford to be caught napping again," one Cabinet minister said yesterday as the Great Fuel Rebellion of 2000 ended with a whimper rather than a bang.

Ministers could barely disguise their relief as the 60-day deadline set by the People's Fuel Lobby in September passed without the threatened mass protest in London or the prospect of further disruption of fuel supplies.

But the Government still bears the scars from the September rebellion, and has had to pay a hefty £2.25bn price to see it off. As the nation ground quickly to a standstill, Mr Blair was haunted by the ghosts of previous Labour Governments - economic chaos, services disrupted, the public suffering - on which he had spent so much energy in banishing. He had to address the nation three days running, and was about to send in the troops when, with food supplies in jeopardy, the protesters called off their direct action and gave the Government 60 days to deliver the goods.

Privately, there was a nod and a wink from ministers that they would do so. The Cabinet adopted a twin-track strategy. The Bad Cop, Jack Straw, told the police to adopt a more "robust" approach if the protesters repeated their action; soldiers were trained to drive fuel tankers; hauliers were threatened with the loss of their operating licences. The Government launched a propaganda offensive about the alleged intimidation of drivers in September; newspapers which had backed the first protest began to change their tune. The Hatfield rail disaster and the floods drew attention away from the price of fuel and reduced the public's stomach for more disruption.

The Good Cop, Gordon Brown, had enough in his Treasury coffers to produce a more generous than expected package of measures for hauliers and ordinary motorists in his draft Budget last week. And, ingeniously, Mr Brown presented his concessions - a reduction in road tax for lorries and a 3p cut in fuel duty - as measures to help save the planet rather than the Government's face. The cracks in the ranks of the fuel protesters, who had been demanding a 26p-a-litre cut in fuel duty, showed immediately; Mr Brown had done enough. As one Government source said yesterday: "We needed to isolate the militants and it worked."

Another element of the "divide and rule" approach was to sooth the concerns of the farmers, who will no longer pay road tax on their farm vehicles, and the fishermen, who were persuaded their problems were different and promised talks this week with Nick Brown, the Minister of Agriculture.

Downing Street was not gloating yesterday, but repeating the mantra that the Government had got the message. Mr Blair's spokesman said: "We understood the real concerns that were expressed about the price of fuel. We have listened and we have acted."

The risks of ignoring such protests are all too apparent: in September, the Tories briefly moved ahead of Labour in the opinion polls for the first time since 1992. Mr Blair, the man Labour picked as a dead-cert winner, no longer looks so invincible.

Ministers admit there are important lessons for the Government. The consensus among them is that September's protests were an expression of wider discontent, not just a gripe about fuel. One minister admitted: "We looked rather arrogant and out of touch. The lesson is that we have got to keep listening."

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