The effect of those "tanker strikes": fuel sales up 7.2%

Could the panic buying have boosted GDP?

The retail sales index for March 2012 is out, and it is stronger than expected. Year-on-year, sales increased in value by 5.7 per cent and by volume by 3.3 per cent. But there was one line in particular which caught everyone's eye:

Sales volumes growth was driven by other stores, non-store retailing and predominantly automotive fuel.

The volume of automotive fuel sales increased by 7.2 per cent in March compared to March 2011, while the breakdown shows that excluding fuel sales, retail growth was 4.9 per cent (value) or 2.8 per cent (volume), reductions of 0.8 or 0.5 points respectively.

When the government first sparked panic buying over the potential of a fuel tanker strike (which, if not announced today, will definitely not happen unless a second vote is held), there were suggestions that it may have been deliberately induced to boost GDP for the first quarter of 2012. Given we are on the knife-edge of a technical recession, even a 0.1 percentage point increase in GDP growth could be hugely psychologically important.

While it remains unlikely to be deliberate, the possibility that it could actually have that effect is no longer quite so laughable. If even half of the growth in fuel sales was due to the panic, that would mean an increase of 0.4 percentage points in total sales value in March 2012. Given fuel doesn't go off, that would likely be reflected by a similar dip in April 2012 – but April is in the second quarter.

Unpacking the various effects will be tricky, but it would be fascinating indeed if one of the worst ever news cycles for the government resulted in preventing an even worse one.

A petrol station with no fuel. But was it deliberate?

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Jeremy Corbyn challenged by Labour MPs to sack Ken Livingstone from defence review

Former mayor of London criticised at PLP meeting over comments on 7 July bombings. 

After Jeremy Corbyn's decision to give Labour MPs a free vote over air strikes in Syria, tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) meeting was less fractious than it could have been. But one grandee was still moved to declare that the "ferocity" of the attacks on the leader made it the most "uplifting" he had attended.

Margaret Beckett, the former foreign secretary, told the meeting: "We cannot unite the party if the leader's office is determined to divide us." Several MPs said afterwards that many of those who shared Corbyn's opposition to air strikes believed he had mishandled the process by appealing to MPs over the heads of the shadow cabinet and then to members. David Winnick declared that those who favoured military action faced a "shakedown" and deselection by Momentum activists. "It is completely unacceptable. They are a party within a party," he said of the Corbyn-aligned group. The "huge applause" for Hilary Benn, who favours intervention, far outweighed that for the leader, I'm told. 

There was also loud agreement when Jack Dromey condemned Ken Livingstone for blaming Tony Blair's invasion of Iraq for the 7 July 2005 bombings. Along with Angela Smith MP, Dromey demanded that Livingstone be sacked as the co-chair of Labour's defence review. Significantly, Benn said aftewards that he agreed with every word Dromey had said. Corbyn's office has previously said that it is up to the NEC, not the leader, whether the former London mayor holds the position. In reference to 7 July, an aide repeated Corbyn's statement that he preferred to "remember the brilliant words Ken used after 7/7". 

As on previous occasions, MPs complained that the leader failed to answer the questions that were put to him. A shadow minister told me that he "dodged" one on whether he believed the UK should end air strikes against Isis in Iraq. In reference to Syria, a Corbyn aide said afterwards that "There was significant support for the leader. There was a wide debate, with people speaking on both sides of the arguments." After David Cameron's decision to call a vote on air strikes for Wednesday, leaving only a day for debate, the number of Labour MPs backing intervention is likely to fall. One shadow minister told me that as few as 40-50 may back the government, though most expect the total to be closer to the original figure of 99. 

At the end of another remarkable day in Labour's history, a Corbyn aide concluded: "It was always going to be a bumpy ride when you have a leader who was elected by a large number outside parliament but whose support in the PLP is quite limited. There are a small number who find it hard to come to terms with that result."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.