Howard accused of electoral opportunism by backing petrol protests as prices rise

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Ministers were bracing themselves yesterday for a wave of fuel protests as Gordon Brown made a last-ditch attempt to persuade Opec nations to increase production and halt the rising price of oil.

Ministers were bracing themselves yesterday for a wave of fuel protests as Gordon Brown made a last-ditch attempt to persuade Opec nations to increase production and halt the rising price of oil.

As fuel campaigners laid the plans for "go-slow" protests in British cities starting this weekend, Michael Howard, the Tory leader, gave his backing "as long as they were peaceful and within the law".

Mr Howard's remarks, which came as prices at petrol pumps continued to rise yesterday, have infuriated ministers and MPs who accused the Tory leader of opportunism.

But the Department of Trade and Industry, which last month held emergency planning sessions with the oil industry, said yesterday it had emergency plans in place to stop UK cities being brought to a standstill.

It warned that it could invoke legislation to stop "go-slow" protestors driving below a certain speed. It also has the power to ensure public services continue by giving vital services such as ambulance drivers, firemen and the police the right to draw fuel before members of the public.

"We have contingency plans in place should fuel supplies be dislocated," a government spokeswoman said.

Yesterday, Mr Brown was busy "hitting the phones" ahead of today's meeting of Opec ministers in Beirut. Mr Brown wants oil-rich nations to increase production to lower the price of oil and there were signs yesterday that countries such as Saudi Arabia will agree to boost production by at least 2.5 million barrels a day.

The United Arab Emirates said it was ready to lift production by a further 400,000 barrels a day and will discuss the move with other Opec members at a meeting of the oil cartel today in Beirut, Lebanon.

The cost of petrol on forecourts increased yesterday as some filling stations continued to charge more than 90p for a litre of unleaded. The average cost of a litre of unleaded petrol was 82.82p - an increase on Tuesday's figure of 80.65p, the AA said.

Protestors were putting in place plans yesterday to block traffic in city centres this weekend and next Wednesday, the day before the European and local elections.

The Tory leader said he would be prepared to support protests so long as they did not break the law.

"People are entitled to protest in a peaceful way and within the law and I can understand people might be very angry indeed if the Government were to proceed with an increase in fuel duty at this time," said Michael Howard in a BBC interview yesterday morning.

"It would cause great hardship to many people and I would entirely understand should they wish to protest."

Protesters, including David Handley, chairman of the Farmers for Action group, said that he had been talking to fuel protestors across Britain about "plans" for peaceful blockades if the Government did not ditch the planned rise in fuel duty in September.

"We are giving the Government until this weekend to try to resolve this. A group of people are meeting up at the weekend to look at when we are going to put action in place," Mr Handley said. "All we want is for the Government to listen to us and let's resolve this by talking like adults."

"Go-slow" protests involving lorries and other vehicles are expected in Cardiff, the North -east and North-west of England as early as this weekend if the Treasury fails to abandon the fuel duty rise. The protests could not come at a worse time for the Government ahead of next week's European, local and London elections.

In 2000, a wave of protests brought British cities to a standstill and the Government was forced to invoke emergency powers. Tony Blair's poll ratings also dipped to a historic low, and the Tories enjoyed a brief opinion poll lead.

Andrew Spence of the People's Fuel Lobby is planning "go-slow" protests in the Newcastle next Wednesday. He said protestors in Edinburgh, Man-chester and Birmingham were planning "go-slow" protests in response to the rising price of petrol and said the feeling was now "one of desperation".

"The feeling in the North-east is of disappointment: disappointment at the Government just ignoring the fact of these ever increasing fuel prices. We have got to do something about it," he told BBC Radio 4.

"We are trying to put protests together, peaceful protests around all the major cities in the country to show the Government it is coming up to the Euro elections on Wednesday and this will cost them votes."

Oil prices continued to trade near-record highs yesterday as Opec prepared to raise production in order to calm fears about petrol shortages.

The cost of crude fell back 1 per cent in New York after the United Arab Emirates said it was ready to raise production by a further 400,000 barrels a day.

However, Saudi oil minister Ali Naimi warned that oil prices were being kept at sky-high levels by factors beyond the cartel's control: "Opec's role is limited to working to achieve a balance between supply and demand in the crude oil market," he said in a speech in Beirut.

The Cabinet Office minister Douglas Alexander insisted yesterday that the Government was taking the right action over the fuel crisis by lobbying Opec nations. "We understand the concerns that people have but that is exactly why the British government is taking action today to put pressure on Opec in advance of their meeting in Beirut tomorrow to take the action necessary to have lower sustainable prices," he said.