The authors of this crisis are not the Government but the oil companies

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The Independent Online

Now that the fuel crisis really does appear to have turned the corner, rather more than 24 hours after the Prime Minister expressed his plaintive hope on Tuesday, let us take stock of the reputations made and unmade by it.

Now that the fuel crisis really does appear to have turned the corner, rather more than 24 hours after the Prime Minister expressed his plaintive hope on Tuesday, let us take stock of the reputations made and unmade by it.

Tony Blair has taken the right position, although he was slow to react as the crisis developed with its astonishing speed, and the credit he has gained by refusing to give in to undemocratic protest has been diminished by trying to appease the protesters even as he stood up to them. Thus, yesterday, he "understood" the "genuinely and sincerely held grievance" of the blockaders, even as he, rightly, said it was unacceptable to try to force a change of policy in a democracy by attempting to bring the country to a halt. There are times, in the words of the last prime minister, to understand a little less and condemn a little more.

Mr Blair should have said more strongly that any cut in petrol duty would have to be paid for by tax rises elsewhere or by cuts in public spending. The trouble was, of course, that he was dealing with an incoherent alliance of groups that found it difficult to articulate precisely how its grievance could be addressed.

In the task of educating the nation in the realities of public finance, he might have expected more support from the Chancellor. Gordon Brown raised fuel duty: he should defend his policy. John Prescott, meanwhile, as the minister for environmental policy, has cut a pitiful figure. Only John Reid, the Scottish Secretary drafted in as an all-purpose crisis spokesman, has emerged with his standing improved.

For the Opposition, William Hague has been as technically proficient as ever, yet he has no arguments to make. He is caught between sympathy for the self-employed yeomanry and the maintenance of law and order; between the desire for low taxes and the Conservative government's responsibility for putting us on the (right) road to high petrol taxes in the first place.

What of the rebels themselves? The road hauliers deserve some sympathy. But all their competitors pay high fuel prices, too, so that cannot be what is driving them out of business. The truth is that they work in an industry oversupplied with small operators undercutting each other. And their real grievance is vehicle excise duty, which is heavier here; but then corporation tax is lighter.

The farmers also deserve sympathy for their plight but can hardly claim to be part of a "taxpayers' revolt", being better known as recipients from the taxpayer through the Common Agricultural Policy.

Less deserving still is the so-called countryside movement. The rural poor are one thing; the out-of-towners who choose to live in rural areas and then complain of the cost of commuting in their gas-guzzling cars are quite another.

Comparisons with the poll tax, meanwhile, are fatuous. Petrol duty is one of the best taxes, helping to cut congestion and pollution and helping to discourage out-of-town housing and shopping development.

But the real authors of the crisis were the oil companies, which could have ensured that the supplies got through. Their economic interests were in ending the summer's price war and in campaigning against a tax on their product. Yesterday's attempt by Esso to put up its prices for petrol and diesel was as tactless as it was transparent. At least Mr Blair did not give in to the protests, unlike the French Prime Minister. Now, he should show the oil companies no mercy and impose a one-off levy on their windfall profits from the rise in oil prices.

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