Militant truck drivers who brought fuel supplies to a standstill by blockading oil refineries 12 years ago said that they were prepared to repeat their protest in support of striking hauliers.
Any sympathy move by truckers, who are campaigning against high taxes on diesel fuel, could complicate government attempts to use army drivers to move essential supplies of fuel around the UK in the event of a strike.
Union leaders, representing the hauliers, are due to meet employers at the conciliation service Acas today. If the talks are not successful they must give seven days' notice of their intention to strike. But in a significant upping of the ante, Andrew Spence, who was instrumental in the blockades in 2000 which led to 3,000 petrol stations running out of fuel, said he and fellow campaigners would "bring Britain to a halt" unless his organisation's concerns were addressed. The father of three, who runs a mixed farm and plant hire company in Co Durham, said: "We have been in negotiations with the tanker drivers since 2000 and have been aware of their grievances for some time.
"We have said to them we may have to stand beside them in any protest. We are better organised than we were in 2000. This time we will bring the Government down."
But the hauliers' union Unite last night condemned Mr Spence's scheme. "This has got nothing to do with us – our aim is not to cause panic or chaos and it is a totally separate issue; we want to negotiate a settlement and minimum standards for working," it said.
Two other campaign groups, FairFuelUK and the Freight Transport Association, also distanced themselves from Mr Spence's comments.
Ed Miliband will use a speech today to accuse the Government of "playing politics with petrol supplies" but the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, claimed that Britain was now better prepared to withstand a strike because of the actions taken by the Government over the past week. Last night, queues on petrol-station forecourts appeared to have shortened significantly compared with the chaotic scenes of last week.
RMI Petrol, the organisation representing 5,500 independent UK forecourts, said yesterday that the volume of petrol sold fell over the past two days after a high on Thursday. Sales of unleaded petrol were up 172 per cent on Thursday but by Saturday this increase had fallen to 18 per cent, RMI said.
But there was a suggestion that some of the reduction in demand was caused by problems with supplies to forecourts.
Ministers have faced intense criticism for urging motorists to keep their petrol tanks topped up. Diane Hill, a mother of two who suffered 40 per cent burns after pouring petrol from a jerrycan in her kitchen, is still in a critical condition in hospital.
But Mr Hague insisted ministers had been right to warn motorists of the possible threat to fuel supplies. "Had they not set out the precautions that people should take and alerted people to the situation, then if the strike took place in the coming weeks, it would be said that they were complacent and hadn't prepared the country," he said.
But privately, senior figures in Downing Street believe that the advice was badly handled.
One said that the Government's role to encourage motorists to take sensible precautions against the threat of a strike had become conflated with a Tory desire to demonise the union Unite.
This, they suggested, had led to the warnings becoming overblown and triggering some of the panic buying.
Burns victim in induced coma
Diane Hill remained critically ill in a specialist burns unit in Pinderfields Hospital last night. A family member said that the hospital was keeping her in a medically induced coma and that she had undergone some skin grafting. The 46-year-old suffered 40 per cent burns when vapours ignited while she decanted fuel for her daughter at her home in Acomb in York last Thursday.