If only the Chancellor would come clean on fuel taxes

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Our leaders should just get a grip - and tell us what they think. Downing Street spends its life declaring itself to be in favour of the New Labour equivalents of motherhood and apple pie, apparently eager to avoid being pinned down on any other subject. First, there have been all the problems with euro-fog, which irritates both sides. Now, we see a similar woolliness on the question of fuel taxes, too.

Our leaders should just get a grip - and tell us what they think. Downing Street spends its life declaring itself to be in favour of the New Labour equivalents of motherhood and apple pie, apparently eager to avoid being pinned down on any other subject. First, there have been all the problems with euro-fog, which irritates both sides. Now, we see a similar woolliness on the question of fuel taxes, too.

Gordon Brown, a Chancellor of the Exchequer who regards himself (with some justification) as master of the budgetary universe, appears to suffer especially from this determination to be an opinion-free zone. His silence on fuel taxes has been depressing and deafening. Given this weekend's revelations about his relationship with his neighbour in Downing Street, one must hope it's not to do with internal feuds.

The huge hike in oil prices has had a dramatic effect on the price of fuel, as drivers in both France and Britain can testify - and, indeed, as those who have been held up by the lorry drivers' blockades can confirm. For the blockaders and their supporters, this means that the Government Must Do Something. The tabloid Dump Our Pumps summer campaign was an embarrassingly damp squib. Nobody seemed to care. Now, however, inspired by the French taste for action directe, some truculent Brits prove that they, too, can get seriously cross.

Beyond the fact that oil prices are high on the world markets, Britain's fuel taxes are higher than those of our Continental neighbours. A substantial slice of the price rise at the petrol pumps has been due to those government taxes, and cannot simply be blamed on Opec.

Unsurprisingly, there are now calls for Mr Brown to slash the taxes and thus make motorists happy. The Chancellor is unlikely to do so. None the less, he has kept surprisingly quiet, apparently frightened of the criticism that might rain down on him were he to open his mouth. If he is ready to stick with Britain's high fuel taxes, he should be ready to defend them on the basis of environmental benefits. At today's speech to the TUC congress, he could put his mouth where his money is. The omens, it must be said, do not look good.

The fuel prices that have hurt the motorist have also benefited the Treasury, probably to the tune of more than £1bn. If Mr Brown were to have an unwonted burst of honesty, he would admit the Treasury windfall, talk about how he plans to spend it, and defend his (admirable) policy of keeping petrol taxes high in the meantime. It is, however, a very large "if".

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