Two's company for start of fuel protest convoy

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The Independent Online

By the end there were more journalists than protesters. The "go slow" convoy predicted to paralyse Britain's roads over fuel prices ended its first day yesterday consisting of a grand total of two vehicles.

By the end there were more journalists than protesters. The "go slow" convoy predicted to paralyse Britain's roads over fuel prices ended its first day yesterday consisting of a grand total of two vehicles.

The first lorry, a concrete mixer bearing a banner of dubious satirical merit - "Tell G. Brown 2p off" - and a four-wheel-drive, arrived on the outskirts of Newcastle at 3pm after crawling down the A1 from Berwick-upon-Tweed. They then promptly returned home.

Thus began the bellicose response of the loose coalition of farmers, haulage companies and self-employed truck drivers calling itself the People's Fuel Lobby (PFL). It was not the start that the leaders of the PFL, who unilaterally announced a 60-day deadline for the Government to meet their demands, had been wanting.

To make matters worse, the authorities signalled an uncompromising stance on the progress of the main convoy due to leave for London from Gateshead at 9am today. Northumbria Police handed out letters to protesters, warning that causing deliberate disruption to traffic or straying from a pre-arranged route could result in three months' jail.

In York, police obtained an order banning the convoy from the city after the PFL announced it intended to make York the first stop on its five-day crusade. A police spokesman said: "When the city is tryingto deal with a life and deathsituation caused by the floods, we simply cannot accommodate a protest of this type."

Yesterday's convoy, which organisers later insisted was a "symbolic" preamble to this morning's departure, had none the less been billed as the start of a popular revenge against government intransigence.

A total of six vehicles pulled out of a service station on the Scottish side of the border at Berwick shortly before 1pm. But one by one they peeled off as their leaders explained they had "real jobs" to attend to.

Queues formed for parts of the journey as the A1 narrowed to a single lane and, for once, the dozens of "don't speed" signs that line the main route between England and Scotland were obeyed at a 30mph crawl.

But when, two hours later, the concrete mixer and four-wheel-drive pulled off the road at Morpeth, they were outnumbered two to one by a bemused following of media.

The driver of the four-wheel-drive, Charlie Armstrong, a 27-year-old farmer from Alnwick, said: "It doesn't matter if there were just two of us at the end. It was a symbolic gesture ahead of the main event."

The organisers of the rolling protest from Newcastle abandoned plans to start their campaign at Jarrow on Tyneside. The attempt to emulate the Jarrow March was judged to have backfired after the head of the PFL in the North-east, Andrew Spence, was criticised for predicting that hundreds of vehicles would descend on London in an echo of the 1936 jobs crusade, "only bigger". John Coxon, deputy PFL organiser in the region, said: "We won't do Jarrow because the spin-doctors, the politicians and the media have blown it out of proportion."

Judging by the reaction of motorists passing yesterday's convoy, however, there is a distinct lack of public appetite for renewed disruption. What few hoots and flashes of support there were came only from fellow hauliers and tractor drivers.

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