Blair blamed for crisis as Labour's eight-year poll lead ends

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Tony Blair has paid the price for the petrol tax rise with opinion polls today showing Labour has lost its lead over the Tories for the first time in eight years.

Tony Blair has paid the price for the petrol tax rise with opinion polls today showing Labour has lost its lead over the Tories for the first time in eight years.

Nevertheless, the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, yesterday continued to rule out an emergency reduction in fuel duty to answer protesters who have given the Government 60 days to cut the tax.

But there may have to be a re-think in strategy if today's polls are followed by consistently bad ratings through the autumn. They suggest that the Government's determination not to cave in to the demands of the protesters is being seen by the voters as "arrogance" and a lack of understanding for ordinary people by Mr Blair.

One poll - Mori in the News of the World - gives the Tories a two-point lead over Labour, the first time it has been ahead since 1992, shortly after John Major's election victory turned sour. An NOP survey in the Sunday Times shows Labour's lead over the Torieserased by the petrol crisis, with both parties at 37 per cent.

More worrying for Mr Blair are the falls in his personal ratings in the crisis. He was branded "out of touch and arrogant" by 73 per cent of the 1,000 people surveyed by NOP and his handling of the crisis was criticised by 79 per cent of the 1,000 questioned by Mori.

In spite of ministers' efforts to heap the blame on the truckers for refusing to deliver fuel supplies to garages, the Government was blamed for the crisis by 85 per cent of those questioned by Mori and 71 per cent in NOP's survey.

Downing Street was braced for a bad set of polls. Alistair Campbell, the Prime Minister's press secretary, in a briefing to journalists before the weekend, said the Government was likely to suffer short-term unpopularity, but that last week's events would not affect its long-term support.

As oil companies made thousands of deliveries yesterday, getting fuel to the pumps after a week of blockades, there were no signs that the row over fuel prices would be resolved quickly.

The Chancellor is considering announcing a freeze on petrol duty in his November pre-Budget statement, which would cut the price of fuel by 2p in real terms from next April, a cost to the Treasury of £1bn. He gave a clear hint that there would be greater cuts in tax for "clean fuels" but no across-the-board cut in duty.

Instead, Mr Brown will intensify the pressure on Opec to further cut the petrol prices by increasing production.

Mr Brown blamed the "short- term volatility" of oil prices for the latest hike in fuel costs but said he would not bow to pressure to cut costs at the expense of key public services. He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "I accept that if people had a choice between paying higher petrol prices or lower petrol prices they would choose lower petrol prices, but I also accept that we need to do more to get Opec to get the world petrol price down.

"Of course when people look at the thing in the round they will say we must finance our public services and they will also say we don't want to make long-term decisions ... on the basis of short-term volatility of fuel prices. That is exactly the short-termism that did so much damage in the past."

Mr Brown continues to insist that although there is "a problem" in the haulage industry and farming, the fuel protest did cause a national crisis.

But the hauliers said a freeze on duty fell way short of their demands. One group, British Hauliers Unite, is now threatening to reimpose the blockade by Wednesday if Mr Blair refuses to see them. A cabinet task force headed by Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, is also looking at practical ways of averting similiar protests.

A report by the oil companies has emphasised that they had no control over self-employed tanker drivers. One proposal is for a law altering the contracts of the self-employed in key industries to ensure they keep working. Cabinet ministers are furious about the protest, saying they were powerless to use existing laws to stop picketing and secondary action.

The Conservatives were swift to capitalise on the Government's autumn blues. The shadow Chancellor, Michael Portillo, said Mr Brown had learned nothing from the events of the past week.

Yesterday, at a press conference, President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria, said that the Opec countries planned to institute a mechanism to stabilise the price of oil.

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