Howard signals support for fuel protests

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The Conservative leader Michael Howard signalled support for fuel protests today as campaigners threatened a go-slow over spiralling prices.

The Conservative leader Michael Howard signalled support for fuel protests today as campaigners threatened a go-slow over spiralling prices.

Pump levels have been hiked by the soaring cost of oil in the wake of the weekend's Saudi Arabia terrorist attack.

Chancellor Gordon Brown was ringing oil ministers as the US and UK stepped up pressure on Opec to increase production in response.

Mr Brown faces mounting pressure to drop a 2p fuel duty rise due in September amid fears of a repeat of the 2000 fuel crisis.

Downing Street yesterday signalled that the Chancellor will press ahead with the increase.

Campaigners today reacted by announcing a demonstration next Wednesday that will see a slow moving convoy of lorries driving through Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

Earlier, Mr Howard said protests that were "peaceful and within the law" could expect support.

But the Tory leader refused to be drawn on the blockade tactics used against fuel stations and depots four years ago.

"As long as they are peaceful and within the law, they may well be supported," he said on BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

"People are entitled to protest in a peaceful way and within the law.

"I can understand that people might be very angry indeed if the Government were to proceed with an increase in fuel duty at this time.

"It would cause great hardship to many people.

"I would entirely understand if they wanted to protest peacefully and within the law."

Mr Howard recently pressed Prime Minister Tony Blair to rule out a fuel duty rise at Prime Minister's questions in the Commons.

The Chancellor postponed an increase in fuel duty last year because of high prices and oil market volatility, Mr Howard said today.

"Now oil prices are much higher than they were then, they are more volatile than they were then, this increase should be put off," he added.

A re-run of 2000 could spell disaster for Labour in the June 10 local and European elections.

The crisis was the only time that the Conservatives managed to pull ahead in the polls during the Government's first term.

However, Labour are largely at the mercy of international markets and events.

Mr Brown was speaking to as many ministers as possible before tomorrow's Opec meeting in Beirut. Washington was undertaking a similar exercise.

A Treasury spokesman said: "The Chancellor will be speaking to quite a few of the ministers today. He is making representations to them to increase production and stabilise oil prices."

However, Saudi pledges to increase production have failed to halt the rise in oil prices which have reached a record high, sparking fears that petrol could hit £1 a litre later this summer.

Top of Mr Brown's list was the Indonesian president of Opec, Purnomo Yusgiantoro.

Mr Brown was telling ministers the unsustainable price level was damaging for both producers and consumer countries.

Other European Union finance ministers were co-ordinating their response to surging oil prices after expressing similar concerns over the potential impact on their sluggish economic recovery.