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.