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.

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Boris Johnson isn't risking his political life over Heathrow

The anti-Heathrow campaigner was never a committed environmentalist. 

A government announcement on expanding London’s airports is expected today, and while opposition forces have been rallying against the expected outcome - a third runway at Heathrow - the decision could also be a divisive one for the ruling Conservative party. A long consultation period will allow these divisions to fester. 

Reports suggest that up to 60 Conservative MPs are against expansion at the Heathrow site. The Prime Minister’s own constituents are threatening legal action, and the former London mayoral candidate, Zac Goldsmith, has promised to step down as MP for Richmond rather than let the airport develop.

But what of Boris Johnson? The politician long synonymous with Heathrow opposition - including a threat to lie down “in front of those bulldozers” - is expected to call the decision a mistake. But for a man unafraid to dangle from a zipwire, he has become unusually reticent on the subject.

The reticence has partly been imposed upon him. In a letter to her cabinet ministers, Theresa May has granted them freedom from the usual rules of collective responsibility (under which cabinet ministers are required to support government positions). But she has also requested that they refrain from speaking out in the Commons, from “actively” campaigning against her position, and from calling “into question the decision making process itself”.  

Johnson is not about to start cheering for Heathrow. But unlike Goldsmith, he is no committed environmentalist - and he's certainly a committed politician.  

Boris’s objections to the expansion at Heathrow have all too often only extended as far as the lives of his London constituents. These local impacts are not to be belittled – in his role of mayor of London, he rightly pointed to the extreme health risks of increased noise and air pollution. And his charisma and profile have also boosted community campaigns around these issues. 

But when it comes to reducing emissions, Johnson is complacent. He may have come a long way since a 2013 Telegraph article in which he questioned whether global warming was real. Yet his plan to build an alternative “hub” airport in the Thames Estuary would have left the question of cutting UK aviation emissions worryingly un-resolved. This lack of curiosity is alarming considering his current job as foreign secretary. 

And there are reasons to be concerned. According to Cait Hewitt at the Aviation Environment Federation, the UK fails to meet its targets for CO2 reduction. And the recent UN deal on aviation emission mitigation doesn’t even meet the commitments of the UK’s own Climate Change Act, let alone the more stringent demands of the Paris Agreement. “Deciding that we’re going to do something that we know is going to make a problem worse, before we’ve got an answer, is the wrong move”, said Hewitt.

There is a local environmental argument too. Donnachadh McCarthy, a spokesperson from the activist group “Rising Up”, says the pollution could affect Londoners' health: "With 70 per cent of flights taken just by 15 per cent of the UK's population... this is just not acceptable in a civilised democracy.”

The way Johnson tells it, his reason for staying in government is a pragmatic one. “I think I'd be better off staying in parliament to fight the case, frankly," he told LBC Radio in 2015. And he's right that, whatever the government’s position, the new “national policy statement” to authorise the project will likely face a year-long public consultation before a parliamentary vote in late 2017 or early 2018. Even then the application will still face a lengthy planning policy stage and possible judicial review. 

But if the foreign secretary does fight this quietly, in the back rooms of power, it is not just a loss to his constituents. It means the wider inconsistencies of his position can be brushed aside - rather than exposed and explored, and safely brought down to ground. 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.