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.

Photo: Getty
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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.