Fuel Crisis: Lessons from the past

On 12th September 2000, BBC News reported that COBRA had drawn up plans to deal with 3000 petrol stations that had been forced to close having run out of fuel and that military options to intervene were being mooted.  Sound familiar?

On that same day a Gallup poll gave Labour a 13% point lead over the Conservatives.  Just one week later the Conservatives achieved a 5% point lead over Labour, rising to 8% points a few days later.  Those 10 days of madness saw the only polls in the entire period from 1997 to 2001 when Labour found itself in second place.

The 2000 protest was caused not by a pay dispute but by spiralling freight costs due to an increasingly tight vehicle duty regime on commercial vehicles.  The fuel protests were at least in part successful, as they led to Chancellor Gordon Brown starting to slacken off the lorry tax noose in that November’s pre-Budget report.

So what are the lessons of 2000 given the current threat to fuel supplies?

1. The causes are different but voter anger at fuel duty remains.  In a pre-Budget ComRes poll for the Independent on Sunday/Sunday Mirror, 74% of the public said they wanted George Osborne to cut duty in petrol and diesel ‘before cutting any other taxes’. But the Chancellor was to disappoint; he not only cut other taxes but rubbed salt into the wound by confirming that August’s 3p duty increase would go ahead as planned.  It is also worth pointing out that the over-65s were the most lively advocates of cutting fuel duty, and of course instead they got the Granny Tax. And fuel prices have huge potential to cause trouble: in a ComRes poll for Theos from March 2011 more people said they were willing to ‘take action’ about fuel prices than said the same of bankers’ bonuses, climate change, global poverty, student fees and even public sector cuts.

2. In 2000 the vast majority of people thought the Government handled the crisis badly.  The key question now, assuming the tanker drivers’ strike goes ahead, is whether the drivers themselves get it in the neck or will people merely get the impression that the Government has lost control of the situation?  From headlines to date, I would suggest the latter.

3. After the 2000 protests, Labour’s poll rating rebounded quickly but the issue of fuel duty did not go away.  Labour’s average poll lead pre-2000 fuel crisis was around 22% over the Conservatives, falling to 15% from October 2000 to the 2001 General Election (although this does include the post-1997 honeymoon).  If the Government, and particularly the Conservatives, are regarded as having been incompetent over this issue the Party will take a significant poll hit which may affect their prospects in May’s Mayoral and local elections.

4. The Government therefore needs to make sure it doesn’t overpromise when reassuring the public that the crisis will be tackled effectively and its effects on the Easter holidays minimised.  But there is a fine line between reassurance and stoking panic, as David Cameron is discovering.

There has to be a significant risk that voters will blame the Government as least as much as they will the striking tanker drivers for the chaos a fuel crisis would bring.  The only way the Government can protect itself against that risk is to stop the strike before it hits.  So it faces a dilemma: does it wade into a dispute that is right now largely outside its control in order to try and stop this turning into a full-blown crisis, or does it confine its focus to helping the public get through it?  The choice between incompetence and impotence is not a happy one.

Successive Governments have underestimated public anger over fuel prices.  While the strike currently has nothing to do with fuel duty, it is easy to see the Government shouldering most of the blame if the country is brought to a standstill once again.