Don't count on Mr Brown to give in to the fuel protesters

Many of the past failures occurred, as the Chancellor well knows, in the run-up to general elections
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The headlines are lurid. Leaders of the fuel protests vie with each other to produce the direst warnings of what lies ahead if Gordon Brown fails to satisfy them in his pre-Budget statement next week. It will be "like Armageddon", according to one of these self-appointed tribunes of the people. If Tony Blair isn't careful he'll face the same kind of "people power" as Slobodan Milosevic did in Belgrade, predicts yet another.

The headlines are lurid. Leaders of the fuel protests vie with each other to produce the direst warnings of what lies ahead if Gordon Brown fails to satisfy them in his pre-Budget statement next week. It will be "like Armageddon", according to one of these self-appointed tribunes of the people. If Tony Blair isn't careful he'll face the same kind of "people power" as Slobodan Milosevic did in Belgrade, predicts yet another.

Much of this, of course, purports to be an outraged reaction to reports, confirmed by Jack Straw yesterday, that the Government is prepared to use troops to deliver fuel for essential services - which would make it the first time since the 1977-8 firemen's strike that the Army has been used on the streets for civil purposes. But best of all comes yesterday's argument from David Handley, chairman of the grandly named People's Fuel Lobby and a south Wales farmer - one that I do not recall being used against the Green Goddesses by even the most militant of striking firemen at the time - that such resort to the military would be undemocratic. "This is a democratic country we live in, and I want it stay like that," thunders Mr Handley. "What [Jack Straw] is proposing is turning it into a dictatorship."

Mr Handley appears to have an imperfect understanding of our representative system of government, to put it politely. The idea that it is somehow "democratic" that the Chancellor of the Exchequer of an elected government should simply make policy to placate a bunch of lorry drivers, farmers and sundry other protesters with a taste for strong-arm tactics is itself laughable. And no less so to suggest that the Government does not have just as great a duty to ensure that patients do not die in hospital or that children do not starve because of shortages inflicted by blockades or any other form of law-breaking protest.

But that doesn't mean that the Chancellor doesn't have a difficult course to steer when he makes his annual pre-Budget statement next Wednesday. Much of it will be about issues that are not making headlines at present. One of the commendable features of his Chancellorship, for example, is a restless lack of complacency about Britain's relatively poor productivity compared to some of her main competitors, and it would be a surprise if he doesn't have things to say in this area. Nevertheless, unrest over fuel duty, not to mention pensions, will ensure that tomorrow week will be a highly political moment for a man who, for all his - among Labour Chancellors - virtually unprecedented fiscal prudence, is also a highly political Chancellor.

What it doesn't mean, however, is that he will be easily cowed by the unrest over fuel duty. To some extent he is the victim of his own success, given that the budget surplus is now expected to be some £10bn more than was forecast in March. It's true that, while voters would no doubt prefer both deeper tax cuts and higher public spending increases than they will get, they are almost certainly more comfortable with a sizeable surplus than with a deficit.

Equally, however, the voting public, and the many vested interests currently demanding reductions in taxation, are made more superficially persuasive by the exceptionally good numbers. But a characteristic of Brown is the detailed knowledge of the pitfalls which confronted his predecessors. It's safe to assume that one of his several Master- mind chosen specialist subjects would be the triumphs and failures of 20th-century Chancellors. And many of the failures occurred, as Brown knows as well as any man, came in the run-up to general elections.

And as easily the best Chancellor since Nigel Lawson, he is not about to repeat the famous error Lawson made when he triggered a boom in the late 1980s under not dissimilar circumstances. Sudden generosity on taxes, over which Brown does have direct control, could lead to interest rate rises - over which, thanks to his creditable decision to make the Bank of England independent, he now doesn't. Nor can he yet be sure that the economy will continue to grow with the sustainability and speed with which it is growing at present. And he will have to pay for measures to erase the mistake of a 75p increase in the state pension.

This government has proved especially adept at managing expectations. We can't, therefore infer for certain that Jack Straw's fairly robust defence of fuel duty yesterday isn't disguising some imminent and quite dramatic reduction across the board in the duty. Moreover, it's improbable that final decisions on the exact details of the Chancellor's package have yet been finalised. All over the country, Treasury officials and ministers are currently holding talks with hauliers' leaders and others with an intensity that will make it difficult to claim that the Government isn't at least listening to the protests.

But such signs as there are suggest strongly that Brown, who recognises the real difficulties facing elements of the haulage industry, is more likely to concentrate what help he provides in that direction, rather than in big across the board cuts demanded by groups like Mr Handley's, in a duty which the Treasury regards as environmentally and economically sound, as well as being much less the cause of pain at the pumps than is the international price of oil.

The difficult path Gordon Brown has to tread is underlined by the fact that the Opposition would like to think that they are in a win-win situation, whatever Mr Brown does next week. If he makes too many concessions, they can claim that he has bowed to lawless protests. If he sets his face against the protesters, they can claim that this government doesn't listen.

But the Tories will need to be careful that they do not associate themselves too closely with the extra-parliamentary protests they so comprehensively used to condemn when they were union-led, and which could - and I venture to suggest, will - very suddenly haemorrhage support if they are seen to threaten life and limb.

One of the problems with the protesters is that they are so disparate in the composition of their demands. Some hauliers have a case, which is recognised in government. It would look less like a conduit for general government bashing if the protests reserved some of their fire for the oil companies, which have happily raised pump prices while making vast profits and lobbying for cuts in duty, and with whom some of the protesters seem to have enjoyed an unhealthily amicable relationship last time around.

But that's not the main point. Gordon Brown will no doubt show next week that he has listened to some of the complaints, notably of the haulage industry. But if, as is likely, it does not satisfy many of the protesters, they should realise that the Government has every democratic right to enforce the law. The chance to change the policy, if that's what they want, is not when their arrogantly imposed 60-day deadline expires on 15 November, but when the electorate has the chance to vote in an alternative government, quite possibly in about six months' time. That, Mr Handley, is what democracies are about.

d.macintyre@independent.co.uk

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