The PM who loves cars too much

Tony Blair is in real agony: he wants to improve public services but he can't bear to alienate the motorists
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The Independent Online

What has our Autumn of Discontent been about? We know that the Winter of Discontent in 1978/79 was an epic conflict over pay and that Margaret Thatcher fought a bloody battle with the miners in the Eighties over her desire to close down pits. But there has been nothing like this before. Echoes from the past serve only to deceive.

What has our Autumn of Discontent been about? We know that the Winter of Discontent in 1978/79 was an epic conflict over pay and that Margaret Thatcher fought a bloody battle with the miners in the Eighties over her desire to close down pits. But there has been nothing like this before. Echoes from the past serve only to deceive.

The Autumn of Discontent stands alone for this reason. In those previous titanic struggles governments took a stand over hugely contentious issues. There was a divide between two sides and only one could win. On this occasion the sound and fury have obscured a central, bizarre ingredient: the Government broadly agrees with its tormentors. Ministers, or at least Downing Street and the Treasury, sympathise with Middle England car lovers and lorry drivers. If anything, they sympathise too much.

This is the difference with those other historic disputes. There is not really a dispute at all. In the mid-Eighties Mrs Thatcher was unflinching. She wanted to close those pits. In 1979 the tottering Callaghan government was determined to impose unrealistic pay limits. Is this most pragmatic of governments really taking on the "people" in a similar fashion, set at all costs on retaining high petrol prices? Of course not.

In July I had a conversation with a senior figure in Downing Street. It took place when the hysterical Philip Gould memos were being published in newspapers on a near-daily basis. (I dread to think what Mr Gould has been writing this past week, given that he was prophesying doom when the Government was soaring, and when the Cabinet appeared to be split over the euro.) The story of euro divisions was also dominating the front pages then. The senior figure told me that Tony Blair was worried neither by the memos, nor the euro. Indeed, he thought the euro would prove a vote loser for the Tories at the next election. So what was he worried about? The senior figure paused and replied: "He is worried about high petrol prices. We are starting to win the argument over public spending, but he is worried that voters will turn against us over tax because of the price of petrol."

Before a lorry blockade was a glimmer in the protesters' eyes, the Prime Minister was worried about the price of petrol. All the talk this week about how out of touch he has become is way off the mark. For those of us who want to see fewer cars on the road, he is too damned in touch. He has always shown himself to be the motorists' friend. In the battle over John Prescott's first transport White Paper, Downing Street spoke up for the car owner. Motorway tolls? Forget them, they will lose us the next election. Congestion charging? Help! The Government got out of that one by giving local authorities the power to impose such charges if they wish. Note that when it comes to imposing unpopular taxes on motorists the Government becomes uncharacteristically pluralist. Note also that it was Gordon Brown who scrapped the fuel escalator in his last Budget, "a motorists' Budget" as some newspapers and motoring organisations cheerfully proclaimed.

So, on the issue of petrol rises, and the cost of motoring, ministers got the message long ago. The protest need never have taken place. Indeed, in their revolutionary ardour, the motoring army has made it more difficult for the Government to defend the car from now on. When ministers act they will look as if they have caved in. In reality they had always intended to act.

Which brings us to what the conflict has been about. It has been about control and timing, not the high level of petrol prices. Rightly, the Government wanted to retain control over its taxation policy, rather than respond to a protest. For Blair and Brown the autumn was the time to act, in the regular mini-Budget. The protesters wanted action now. Britain was brought to a halt over a misunderstanding. The protesters did not realise they were knocking at an open door.

But the Government's willingness to act, whether or not the protest had taken place, raises a much bigger political question. Have some indirect taxes become politically untouchable, in the same way ministers do not dare to raise the level of income tax? If you cannot raise income tax, or petrol tax, or dare to introduce congestion charging and motorway tolls, there is not much left for even the stealthiest of chancellors. Britain has some of the worst public services in the Western world, but raising taxes to pay for them is becoming increasingly difficult.

In the early summer Mr Blair boldly made the link between tax and spending for the first time, explicitly stating that unpopular taxes are necessary sometimes if we want better schools and hospitals. By the end of last week, drained and exhausted, he became more cautious, openly agonising at increasingly tortuous, hesitant press conferences. "The Government has to balance different interests.... People want tax cuts, but they also want better public services."

Yes, we do. We want better public services. The events of last week reminded me of my own pathetic protest over transport. On the Sunday after the last election I was in a train on a boiling hot day reading a newspaper. The front page carried a large photo of Mr Blair in jeans, beaming youthfully from Chequers, the only prime minister to look good in denim. As I reflected on the hopeful symbolism of the photo, the train stopped between stations. It did not move again for 40 minutes. No one seemed to know why we had stopped. During this period the smiling photo started to annoy me. As temperatures soared I stood up, threw the newspaper down and exclaimed: "This bloody government won't get anywhere unless they sort out these trains."

That was it. That was my rebellion. My fellow passengers looked down. They were used to showing a polite stoicism in the face of appalling train services. Now I know what I should have done. I should have blocked all trains from leaving Euston and persuaded others, however stoical, to do the same.

This, though, is the Government's dilemma. Short-term stoicism in the face of appalling public services is complemented by a longer-term impatience, which could explode as it almost did last winter over the NHS. If the Government cuts fuel duties it must consider other ways of raising cash to improve public transport. In his last Budget Mr Brown pledged to earmark any cash raised through further increases in petrol tax to the transport budget. One thing is for certain. No chancellor will dare increase petrol tax in the near future. So what about motorway tolls and congestion charging? If car lovers want the French model, let them have the whole package.

In the short term there is another solution, a third way. After my experience on that train in 1997 I decided to give up on public transport. I used a car at first, but found myself in stationary jams rather than stationary trains. So I bought a bike and found that I got to places on time and started to acquire the body of an athlete. That is what Mr Blair should say to corpulent car lovers. He should tell them what Norman Tebbit told the unemployed in the Eighties: Get on your bike. Mr Blair will not do so. He is on the side of the car lovers.