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.

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The most terrifying thing about Donald Trump's speech? What he didn't say

No politician uses official speeches to put across their most controversial ideas. But Donald Trump's are not hard to find. 

As Donald Trump took the podium on a cold Washington day to deliver his inauguration speech, the world held its breath. Viewers hunched over televisions or internet streaming services watched Trump mouth “thank you” to the camera, no doubt wondering how he could possibly live up to his deranged late-night Twitter persona. In newsrooms across America, reporters unsure when they might next get access to a president who seems to delight in denying them the right to ask questions got ready to parse his words for any clue as to what was to come. Some, deciding they couldn’t bear to watch, studiously busied themselves with other things.

But when the moment came, Trump’s speech was uncharacteristically professional – at least compared to his previous performances. The fractured, repetitive grammar that marks many of his off-the-cuff statements was missing, and so, too, were most of his most controversial policy ideas.

Trump told the crowd that his presidency would “determine the course of America, and the world, for many, many years to come” before expressing his gratefulness to President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama for their “gracious aid” during the transition. “They have been magnificent," Trump said, before leading applause of thanks from the crowd.

If this opening was innocent enough, however, it all changed in the next breath. The new president moved quickly to the “historic movement”, “the likes of which the world has never seen before”, that elected him President. Following the small-state rhetoric of his campaign, Trump promised to take power from the “establishment” and restore it to the American people. “This moment," he told them, “Is your moment. It belongs to you.”

A good deal of the speech was given over to re-iterating his nationalist positions while also making repeated references to the key issues – “Islamic terrorism” and families – that remain points of commonality within the fractured Republican GOP.

The loss of business to overseas producers was blamed for “destroying our jobs”. “Protection," Trump said, “Will lead to great strength." He promised to end what he called the “American carnage” caused by drugs and crime.

“From this day forward," Trump said, “It’s going to be only America first."

There was plenty in the speech, then, that should worry viewers, particularly if you read Trump’s promises to make America “unstoppable” so it can “win” again in light of his recent tweets about China

But it was the things Trump didn't mention that should worry us most. Trump, we know, doesn’t use official channels to communicate his most troubling ideas. From bizarre television interviews to his upsetting and offensive rallies and, of course, the infamous tweets, the new President is inclined to fling his thoughts into the world as and when he sees fit, not on the occasions when he’s required to address the nation (see, also, his anodyne acceptance speech).

It’s important to remember that Trump’s administration wins when it makes itself seem as innocent as possible. During the speech, I was reminded of my colleague Helen Lewis’ recent thoughts on the “gaslighter-in-chief”, reflecting on Trump’s lying claim that he never mocked a disabled reporter. “Now we can see," she wrote, “A false narrative being built in real time, tweet by tweet."

Saying things that are untrue isn’t the only way of lying – it is also possible to lie by omission.

There has been much discussion as to whether Trump will soften after he becomes president. All the things this speech did not mention were designed to keep us guessing about many of the President’s most controversial promises.

Trump did not mention his proposed ban on Muslims entering the US, nor the wall he insists he will erect between America and Mexico (which he maintains the latter will pay for). He maintained a polite coolness towards the former President and avoiding any discussion of alleged cuts to anti-domestic violence programs and abortion regulations. Why? Trump wanted to leave viewers unsure as to whether he actually intends to carry through on his election rhetoric.

To understand what Trump is capable of, therefore, it is best not to look to his speeches on a global stage, but to the promises he makes to his allies. So when the President’s personal website still insists he will build a wall, end catch-and-release, suspend immigration from “terror-prone regions” “where adequate screening cannot occur”; when, despite saying he understands only 3 per cent of Planned Parenthood services relate to abortion and that “millions” of women are helped by their cancer screening, he plans to defund Planned Parenthood; when the president says he will remove gun-free zones around schools “on his first day” - believe him.  

Stephanie Boland is digital assistant at the New Statesman. She tweets at @stephanieboland