Union backlash over Blair handling of fuel crisis

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The Independent Online

Government plans to pass an emergency law to head off a second wave of fuel protests have been attacked by Britain's biggest unions in a backlash against Labour's handling of the crisis.

Government plans to pass an emergency law to head off a second wave of fuel protests have been attacked by Britain's biggest unions in a backlash against Labour's handling of the crisis.

Union leaders made clear they had deep reservations about the plans of Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, to pass a law to force oil companies to guarantee the supply of fuel, as Tony Blair faced his worst collapse in public support since he took office. After opinion polls at the weekend showed the Tories ahead of Labour for the first time since 1992, Gordon Brown came under increasing pressure from cabinet colleagues to signal cuts in fuel taxes.

The Chancellor, who spoke to the Prime Minister at Chequers yesterday, is the target of increasing frustration within Cabinet over his unwillingness to respond to public anxiety over the price of fuel.

Yesterday friends of Mr Brown were insistent that he would not be influenced by the protests and that the proper forum for considering tax cuts was in the next Budget round.

"Decisions on tax are taken at the Budget in the usual way. We want to demonstrate that these are for the long term and not on the basis of who is protesting the loudest," said a Treasury source.

But Geoff Hoon, the Secretary of State for Defence, publicly admitted that if the party's public ratings did not improve it was in trouble. "I accept that if the polls are still as dreadful as that we will clearly have a problem," he said on GMTV.

Andrew Smith, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, gave the strongest hint yet that ministers would respond to public concern over the rising fuel prices. "We will listen, we will meet with representatives of the industry and those who are concerned," he said on BBC1's On the Record. "And those factors will be taken into account, of course they will, as we draw up the pre-budget report and the Chancellor finalises his Budget."

Mr Blair's personal standing has been hit by the fuel crisis, with almost three-quarters describing him as "out of touch and arrogant" and most blaming him for last week's events.

One opinion poll at the weekend showed Labour and the Tories neck and neck. Another showed William Hague ahead of Mr Blair by 38 to 36 per cent.

Mr Hague yesterday described the fuel protesters as "fine, upstanding citizens".

Mr Straw's taskforce will meet today to draw up plans to ensure that protests about fuel cannot paralyse the country. Union leaders say they are angry they have not been invited to join the taskforce. It is expected to recommend that hundreds of army drivers be trained to drive oil tankers. An emergency law, expected in this year's Queen's Speech, will lead to changes in the way that tanker drivers are hired, with new obligations on them to deliver fuel in the face of protests. The plan would in effect mean a strike ban for tens of thousands of workers.

Bill Morris, general secretary of the Transport and General Workers' Union, said the Government should enforce existing laws before considering fresh legislation. Mr Morris, who played a key role in persuading tanker drivers to keep working last week, warned that ministers could not rely on unions to resolve crises unless they listened to priorities for the nextelection manifesto. John Edmonds, leader of the GMB, said he could hardly believe the Government contemplated banning industrial action in essential services. Baroness Thatcher, when she was Prime Minister, had considered the strategy, but had decided against it.

The main oil companies were expected to have stocked more than half their filling stations by tonight.