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
Show Hide image

Why isn't Labour putting forward Corbynite candidates?

Despite his successes as a candidate, the organisational victories have gone the way of Corbyn's opponents. 

The contest changes, but the result remains the same: Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred candidate defeated in a parliamentary selection. Afzhal Khan is Labour’s candidate in the Manchester Gorton by-election and the overwhelming favourite to be the seat’s next MP.

Although Khan, an MEP, was one of  the minority of Labour’s European MPs to dissent from a letter from the European parliamentary Labour party calling for Jeremy Corbyn to go in the summer of 2016, he backed Andy Burnham and Tom Watson in 2015, and it is widely believed, fairly or unfairly, that Khan had, as one local activist put it, “the brains to know which way the wind was blowing” rather than being a pukka Corbynite.

For the leader’s office, it was a double defeat;  their preferred candidate, Sam Wheeler, was kept off the longlist, when the party’s Corbynsceptics allied with the party’s BAME leadership to draw up an all ethnic minority shortlist, and Yasmine Dar, their back-up option, was narrowly defeated by Khan among members in Manchester Gorton.

But even when the leadership has got its preferred candidate to the contest, they have been defeated. That even happened in Copeland, where the shortlist was drawn up by Corbynites and designed to advantage Rachel Holliday, the leader’s office preferred candidate.

Why does the Labour left keep losing? Supporters combination of bad luck and bad decisions for the defeat.

In Oldham West, where Michael Meacher, a committed supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s, was succeeded by Jim McMahon, who voted for Liz Kendall, McMahon was seen to be so far ahead that they had no credible chance of stopping him. Rosena Allin-Khan was a near-perfect candidate to hold the seat of Tooting: a doctor at the local hospital, the seat’s largest employer, with links to both the Polish and Pakistani communities that make up the seat’s biggest minority blocs.  Gillian Troughton, who won the Copeland selection, is a respected local councillor.

But the leadership has also made bad decisions, some claim.  The failure to get a candidate in Manchester Gorton was particularly egregious, as one trade unionist puts it: “We all knew that Gerald was not going to make it [until 2020], they had a local boy with good connections to the trade unions, that contest should have been theirs for the taking”. Instead, they lost control of the selection panel because Jeremy Corbyn missed an NEC meeting – the NEC is hung at present as the Corbynsceptics sacrificed their majority of one to retain the chair – and with it their best chance of taking the seat.

Others close to the leadership point out that for the first year of Corbyn’s leadership, the leader’s office was more preoccupied with the struggle for survival than it was with getting more of its people in. Decisions in by-elections were taken on the hop and often in a way that led to problems later down the line. It made sense to keep Mo Azam, from the party’s left, off the shortlist in Oldham West when Labour MPs were worried for their own seats and about the Ukip effect if Labour selected a minority candidate. But that enraged the party’s minority politicians and led directly to the all-ethnic-minority shortlist in Manchester Gorton.

They also point out that the party's councillor base, from where many candidates are drawn, is still largely Corbynsceptic, though they hope that this will change in the next round of local government selections. (Councillors must go through a reselection process at every election.)

But the biggest shift has very little to do with the Labour leadership. The big victories for the Labour left in internal battles under Ed Miliband were the result of Unite and the GMB working together. Now they are, for various reasons, at odds and the GMB has proven significantly better at working shortlists and campaigning for its members to become MPs.  That helps Corbynsceptics. “The reason why so many of the unions supported Jeremy the first time,” one senior Corbynite argues, “Is they wanted to move the Labour party a little bit to the left. They didn’t want a socialist transformation of the Labour party. And actually if you look at the people getting selected they are not Corbynites, but they are not Blairites either, and that’s what the unions wanted.”

Regardless of why, it means that, two years into Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour left finds itself smaller in parliament than it was at the beginning.  

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