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: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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