Fuel crisis continues to spiral out of ministers' control

Pressure on Maude grows as a woman is burnt in York and sales of jerry cans soar.

While George Galloway's startling win in Bradford may have provided some temporary respite, there is no question that this has been a bad week for the coalition.

The self-inflicted fuel crisis is continuing to spiral out of ministers' control, with fresh pressure on Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude. A woman in York has suffered 40 per cent burns after transferring petrol from one container to another in her kitchen. The political implications of this sad incident have yet to be seen. Reaction from the opposition has been divided. Labour peer Lord Toby Harris called for Maude to step down, while Labour MP Tom Harris tweeted: "Instead of blaming ministers for the accident involving the York woman decanting fuel, we should simply warn people against storing fuel."

Downing Street eventually responded to the news, saying only:

We are aware of the reports. People should follow the advice from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).

But this does not exonerate Maude -- who said earlier this week that people should put "a bit of extra fuel in a jerry can in the garage". The HSE advice explicitly warns against keeping petrol in a container of this size (a jerry can holds 20 litres):

The limit is a maximum of two suitable metal containers each of a maximum capacity of ten litres and two plastic containers (which have to be of an approved design) each of a maximum capacity of five litres. These limits also apply to any containers kept in a vehicle parked in the garage or on the driveway (but not to the internal fuel tank of the vehicle). Under no circumstances should the petrol containers be stored in the home itself.

Anyone who wishes to store larger quantities than this, or use larger containers, is required to notify the local Petroleum Licensing Authority.

It may be unfair to hold Maude directly accountable for the incident in York (although news organisations have wasted no time in trying to establish whether the woman was explicitly acting on his advice or not -- latest reports say not). However, it is indisputable that he gave advice that not only prompted panic, but was in breach of government safety regulations. York was one of the first places to be affected by panic buying, with many petrol stations dry as quickly as Tuesday.

The Transport Minister Mike Penning told Newsnight earlier this week that Maude's comment was "a mistake", saying: "He didn't understand the size of a jerry can."

But unfortunately for him, the figures show that his advice has been taken literally, mistake or not. Halfords is reporting a 500 per cent increase in sales of jerry cans. Amazon has seen an astonishing hike in sales of jerry cans, of over 20,000 per cent, with the containers' sales rank rocketing from 58,380 to 283. Maude's comments on Tuesday caused sales of petrol to rise 81 per cent and diesel by 43 per cent.

It is debatable how much blame can be laid at the door of the government -- and Maude -- for one individual accident. Their culpability in creating a pointless fuel crisis and all the panic that goes with it is indisputable.

Francis Maude is under pressure. Photograph: Getty Images

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Who'll win the Richmond Park by-election?

There are three known unknowns that will decide the contest. 

It’s official: Zac Goldsmith has resigned as the Conservative MP for his Richmond Park seat, and has triggered a by-election there, where he will stand as an independent candidate.

Will it be a two-way or a three-way race?

The big question is whether the contest will be a three way fight between him, the Liberal Democrat candidate Sarah Olney, and an official Conservative candidate, or if CCHQ will decide to write the thing off and not field a candidate, making it a two-horse race between Goldsmith and Olney.

There are several Tory MPs who are of the opinion that, given that latitude to disagree on Heathrow has been granted to two Cabinet ministers, Boris Johnson and Justine Greening, similar leeway should be extended to Goldsmith. It’s win-win for Downing Street not to contest it, partly because doing so would put anti-Heathrow MPs, including Johnson and Greening, in an impossible position. Theresa May isn’t averse to putting Johnson in a tricky spot, but Greening was an early supporter of her leadership bid, so her interests come fairly high up the prime ministerial radar.

But the second reason not to contest it is that Goldsmith’s chances of re-election will be put in a serious jeopardy if there is a Tory candidate in the race. Everything from the local elections in May or the Liberal mini-revival since Brexit indicates that in a three-way race, they will start as heavy favourites, and if a three-way race results in a Liberal Democrat win there will be bloodletting.

Although people are talking up Goldsmith’s personal vote, I can find little hard evidence that he has one worth writing home about. His performance in the wards of Richmond Park in the mayoral election was actually a bit worse than the overall Tory performance in London.  (Boris Johnson didn’t have a London seat so we cannot compare like-for-like, but Sadiq Khan did four points better in Tooting than he did across London and significantly outperformed his general election performance there.) He did get a big swing from Liberal to Conservative at the general election, but big swings from the Liberal candidate to the Tory were a general feature of the night, and I’m not wholly convinced, given his performance in Richmond Park in 2016, that it can be laid at Goldsmith’s door.

If he wins, it’ll be because he was the Conservative candidate, rather than through any particular affection for him personally.

But will being the Conservative candidate be enough?

Although on paper, he inherits a healthy majority. So did Robert Courts, the new MP for Witney, and he saw it fall by 19 points, with the Liberal Democrats storming from fourth to second place. Although Goldsmith could, just about, survive a fall of that magnitude, there are reasons to believe it may be worse in Richmond Park than Witney.

The first is that we already know, not just from Witney but from local council by-elections, that the Liberal Democrats can hurt the Conservatives in affluent areas that backed a Remain vote. But in Witney, they barely squeezed the Labour vote, which went down by just over two points, or the Green vote, which went down by just under two points. If in Richmond Park, they can both damage the Tory vote thanks to Brexit and squeeze Labour and the Greens, they will win.

Goldsmith's dog-whistle campaign for the London mayoralty will particularly help squeeze the Labour vote, and thanks to Witney, the Liberal Democrats have a ready-made squeeze message. (In Witney, Green and Labour votes would have been more than enough to elect Liz Leffman, the Liberal candidate.)

But their good performance in Witney and Goldsmith's mayoral result may not be enough on their own.  Ultimately, the contest will come down to the big question that will decide not just the outcome in Richmond Park but the future of the Liberal Democrats.

Have the voters forgiven the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition?

We know that Brexit can help the Liberal Democrats at the direct expense of the Conservatives. What we don’t know is if Brexit is enough to convince 6,000 Labour voters in Bath to vote tactically to get Ben Howlett out in exchange for a Lib Dem, or for 7,500 Labour voters to back a Liberal candidate in Hazel Grove to defeat William Wragg.

One of the reasons why the Liberal Democrats lost votes directly to the Tories in 2015 was fear: of uncertainty and chaos under an Ed Miliband government propped up by the SNP. That factor is less live in a by-election but has been further weakened due to the fact that Brexit – at least as far as Remain-backing Conservatives are concerned – has brought just as much uncertainty and chaos as Miliband and the SNP ever would have.

But the other reason was disgust at the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition with the Conservatives. If they can’t win over enough votes from the parties of the left, we’ll know that the party still has a way to come before we can truly speak of a Liberal revival. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.