Why Cameron fears a fuel strike

The 2000 fuel protests turned a 15-point Labour lead into a four-point Tory lead.

Unsurprisingly, the government is taking the threat of a fuel strike seriously. David Cameron will chair a meeting of Cobra this afternoon and the cabinet has been briefed on plans to train the army to stand in for striking drivers. Yesterday a No 10 spokeswoman hinted that the public should begin stockpiling fuel:

It is important that people look at their contingency plans because, should there be a dispute, which is something obviously we want to avoid, then disruption is inevitable.

Cameron is clearly determined to prevent a repeat of the 2000 fuel protests when pumps ran dry across the country. And he has every political incentive to do so. The last drivers' strike saw the Conservatives take the lead over Labour for the first time since the 1997 election. As the graph below shows, in the wake of the action, a 15-point Labour lead became a four-point Tory lead. With Cameron's party already haemorrhaging support over the Budget and the "cash for access" scandal, a drivers' strike could further sour the mood.

There is, of course, one big difference between this dispute and that of 2000. The latter was triggered by the Blair government's refusal to cut fuel duty, while the current disagreement was sparked by the oil companies' failure to impose minimum safety standards. Unite members in five of the seven firms involved have voted for strike action. In a piece for the Guardian, the union's general secretary Len McCluskey writes of "a categorical failure of business to behave responsibly".

But if supplies run low over the Easter weekend [the likely date for the strike], Cameron and co are unlikely to avoid at least some of the blame. All of which explains the government's sudden urgency.

Tanker drivers could strike over the Easter weekend. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty Images.
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George Osborne's surplus target is under threat without greater austerity

The IFS exposes the Chancellor's lack of breathing space.

At the end of the last year, I noted how George Osborne's stock, which rose dramatically after the general election, had begun to plummet. His ratings among Tory members and the electorate fell after the tax credits imbroglio and he was booed at the Star Wars premiere (a moment which recalled his past humbling at the Paralympics opening ceremony). 

Matters have improved little since. The Chancellor was isolated by No.10 and cabinet colleagues after describing the Google tax deal, under which the company paid £130m, as a "major success". Today, he is returning from the Super Bowl to a grim prognosis from the IFS. In its Green Budget, the economic oracle warns that Osborne's defining ambition of a budget surplus by 2019-20 may be unachievable without further spending cuts and tax rises. 

Though the OBR's most recent forecast gave him a £10.1bn cushion, reduced earnings growth and lower equity prices could eat up most of that. In addition, the government has pledged to make £8bn of currently unfunded tax cuts by raising the personal allowance and the 40p rate threshold. The problem for Osborne, as his tax credits defeat demonstrated, is that there are few easy cuts left to make. 

Having committed to achieving a surplus by the fixed date of 2019-20, the Chancellor's new fiscal mandate gives him less flexibility than in the past. Indeed, it has been enshrined in law. Osborne's hope is that the UK will achieve its first surplus since 2000-01 just at the moment that he is set to succeed (or has succeeded) David Cameron as prime minister: his political fortunes are aligned with those of the economy. 

There is just one get-out clause. Should GDP growth fall below 1 per cent, the target is suspended. An anaemic economy would hardly be welcome for the Chancellor but it would at least provide him with an alibi for continued borrowing. Osborne may be forced to once more recite his own version of Keynes's maxim: "When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?" 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.