Blair must show us the tiger in his tank

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Well, were you comforted? Tony Blair's feeble appearances around the floodplains in his too-brand-new macintosh were combined with a Corporal Jones-type declaration on his website to motorists. Both messages were designed to ease the sense of panic which is rising in the country, but did nothing to assuage either the waters or the fear.

Well, were you comforted? Tony Blair's feeble appearances around the floodplains in his too-brand-new macintosh were combined with a Corporal Jones-type declaration on his website to motorists. Both messages were designed to ease the sense of panic which is rising in the country, but did nothing to assuage either the waters or the fear.

This weekend, Britain is neither green nor pleasant as the rush to the pumps begins, through flood and wind, past deserted railway stations. Another inch of rain is forecast for flooded areas before Tuesday. The self-congratulation of the Environment Agency, whose boss smugly asserts that he is "proud of what has been achieved", only worsens the misery. Things - as Labour used to say - can only get better. But they probably won't.

The country's drivers seem to be making what is, for them, a rational choice. "Keeping the tank topped up - just in case," they tell the TV reporters. And nobody can deny that this is the sensible thing to do. With trains erratic, more bad weather forecast and the clock ticking towards that fuel blockade deadline, who can blame the public for "just making sure"? Like a macabre game, motorists are queuing now in the expectation of worse delays to come, and in a self-fulfilling prophecy they then watch as, thanks in part to them, things do indeed get nastier.

The sum of these rational choices is national disaster. Already some petrol stations are running dry as too many people behave too rationally. Even for those who have already filled, the terror of watching that dial inch from "full" towards "red" suggests they may well have to "just make sure" again before the blockades begin in earnest on 13 November. On Wednesday at 3.30pm, all eyes and ears will be on Gordon Brown to determine whether his Pre-Budget Report will do enough to buy off the fuel protesters. We can say with some certainty that it won't.

The demand for a 26.2p cut in fuel tax for everyone, by David Handley on behalf of the People's Fuel Lobby, is a ridiculous proposal which Mr Brown will properly resist. More tempting for the Chancellor will be to try to split the mishmash of protesters by acceding to the more reasonable demands of some road hauliers. The Freight Transport Association wants a 15p cut for truckers only, along with a cut in vehicle excise duty and a new tax disc which foreign drivers must buy.

How the Chancellor would love to cleave the hauliers from other protesters by granting these demands. Without many of the hauliers, the blockades will be denuded, the Government free to claim a triumph. As we report on page one, the signs are that Mr Brown is giving the hauliers' demands serious consideration. But it would be a Pyrrhic victory.

Whether or not the tactic is clever, to bow to the demands of the "moderates" would be wrong. Lorries are polluting, road-destroying vehicles which offer far less to the Treasury than they cost. Making it cheaper to operate them would be a retrograde step. It would be unfair to dwell unduly on the fact that the Road Hauliers' Association has a former Conservative MP, Roger King, as its chief executive. But it is true that most of the protesters and their allies are anti-Labour and would like to see the back of Tony Blair, no matter what is offered on Wednesday. For many, this "taxpayers' revolt" is just an opportunity to attack the team in Downing Street.

In the face of such a disparate enemy, the dilemma facing the Government is certainly unenviable. It needs to be seen to be listening, but it cannot afford to be judged as weak. With the public purse bulging, Mr Brown will not be able to plead poverty.

Which makes it all the more important that the Government pleads democracy instead. Back in September, the Independent on Sunday warned that blockades in November, as winter begins to bite, would be murderous. We noted that the blockades demonstrated the terrifying fragility, not only of our infrastructure, but of our democracy, too. That was before the floods, gales and blizzards, and before the railways ground to a halt. This new situation makes the prospects for next week even worse. To take advantage of Britain's misery to turn the screws on the Government, as the fuel protesters are intent on doing, is blackmail pure and simple.

For many commentators, it is all too reminiscent of 1974, when the Heath government, brought to its knees by a miners' strike and an oil shock, called an election asking: "Who governs?". Then, as now, it was unclear just who was in charge of a crippled country. At the ballot box, the voters decided that Ted - for one - should govern no more. But we hope that the parallels with 1974 are misplaced, and over the next few weeks, Mr Blair can prove it by displaying that he governs - and not Mr Handley, not Railtrack boss Gerald Corbett, nor even Michael Fish.

"Remember, remember the fifth of November" urges the rhyme. With the worst floods for 50 years, much of the telephone network down, queues at the pumps and a crumbling railway system, this Guy Fawkes Night will be one to forget. But if this "petrol plot" puts some backbone into the Government - and forces Mr Blair finally to acknowledge that you can't please all of the voters all of the time - it could be as memorable as the original gunpowder plot.

Comments