Wary, weary to the brink once more

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The Independent Online

Pints in hand, the 90-odd men in the back room of The Stocksman in Carlisle roared with laughter. Up at the front of the pub, Stephen Murray was letting rip a tale about a schoolboy asked to tell a story with a moral. The boy had come up with one about his grandad in the trenches with a bottle of whisky, eight rounds of ammunition and a bayonet. The soldier had drunk the whisky, gone over the top, shot eight of the enemy and bayoneted another 20. The moral? "Don't mess with my grandad when he's pissed," the boy said.

Pints in hand, the 90-odd men in the back room of The Stocksman in Carlisle roared with laughter. Up at the front of the pub, Stephen Murray was letting rip a tale about a schoolboy asked to tell a story with a moral. The boy had come up with one about his grandad in the trenches with a bottle of whisky, eight rounds of ammunition and a bayonet. The soldier had drunk the whisky, gone over the top, shot eight of the enemy and bayoneted another 20. The moral? "Don't mess with my grandad when he's pissed," the boy said.

His message for Tony Blair was about the same, only the language was slightly bluer. Barring some expletives, Mr Murray warned the Prime Minister: "Don't mess with the British people when they're pissed off." No one laughed.

This was not cabaret night at the working men's club. These lads weren't just there for the beer. As a disorganised, rag-tag outfit armed only with mobile phones, a deep sense of grievance and the tools of their trade - tractors and lorries - they had brought Britain to a virtual standstill in September. Now, galvanised as the People's Fuel Lobby (PFL), they really meant business.

The men (and one or two women) in The Stocksman on Wednesday night were there to plan their next show of strength: a mass slow crawl from Jarrow to London, invoking the spirit of the original Jarrow marchers - an action supported by rallies in Gateshead, Inverness, Kent, Manchester, Exeter and south Wales. Setting out on 10 November, they will reach Downing Street five days later and hand in a petition demanding a reduction in fuel duty. And just to make sure Mr Blair has no escape route, they have convinced their friends, the trawlermen, to do on the Thames what they planned for the roads.

Back in Westminster, the Government is steeling itself for a fight. Last week, the Prime Minister told MPs he would not be pushed around by "people threatening to bring the country to a halt or even blocking food supplies or threatening Armageddon". Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, warned that the police will be ready to flood key sites in the event of illegal blockades of oil installations, food depots or UK ports. And, he said, the army is training its troops to drive emergency fuel tankers, if necessary.

The PFL insists there will be no refinery blockades and no threats to supermarkets, just a peaceful drive and a rally. "It's not going to happen," Craig Eley, a North-east protest organiser, said. "Do you really think we want people sitting down to bread and brown sauce for their Christmas dinner?"

The six key players - Stephen Murray; Andrew Spence; David Handley, a Monmouthshire farmer; Mark Francis, a haulier from north Wales; Paul Astley, a Cheshire farmer; and Martin Hall, a haulier from south Wales - know it is a priority to subdue the more militant tendency bent on blockades and jamming tactics. The public must be kept on side.

Mr Spence, a Consett farmer, said he's had to be tough. "All it takes is an ambulance not getting to someone dying. We lose one of them and we've lost them. We've got them and we've got to keep them."

Afterwards, in the smoky bar of The Stocksman, the men who have committed their days and nights to campaigning for a reduction in fuel duty told us why they felt compelled to transform a disparate, spontaneous action into a national protest movement. And why, as Andrew Spence put it, they will do "whatever it takes for as long as it takes" to get the Government to reduce petrol tax.

Haulier Eric Nicholson from Cockermouth recalled hearing about the fuel protest growing outside the oil refinery in Stanlow, Cheshire. His firm had been forced to lay off workers and was losing contracts to cheaper European hauliers. "It's about the survival of our businesses and we decided this seemed to be a good way to put our message across to the Government because they hadn't been listening to us."

Farmers followed suit. One, from nearby Welton, said "absolutely scandalous" fuel prices were the last straw. In August, he had had to sell his herd of cattle at a knockdown price and sack his staff. A month later he joined the protesters. But the call to action took hold beyond vested interests. When 41-year-old Paul Renucci switched on the news and saw what was going on, he immediately shut his Carlisle chip shop and stood alongside the campaigners. "I voted Labour in. I believed in the policies they promised to deliver to the people in this country, but they have totally lied."

At the end of the September action, the protesters gave the Government a 60-day deadline. Now, as Day 61 approaches, the strain is beginning to show.

Mr Spence, dressed in his trademark blue boiler suit and boots, is feeling the pressure. In the prefabricated building he uses at an office at his farm, the tinny Peer Gynt ring on his mobile plays on an almost continuous loop. "... yes, you can meet us in Manchester... no, none of our people are in the BNP... 26.2p is a starting point for negotiations..." His diary was full of the meetings with police, protesters and journalists which now fill his life.

He was on the verge of giving up when his family were threatened because of his involvement. But he said he had no choice but to continue. "I have a flock of 400 ewes. Three years ago, they were worth £30,000. They're worth less than £5,000 now. I used to live in the farmhouse next door, but I had to sell it. We're now in a council house. I've got £42 in the bank," he said. "As much as that?" asked his friend Craig Eley. Both agreed: among the protesters, that meant the drinks were on him.

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