It’s been a troubled week for Francis Maude, normally one of the safest pairs of hands in the coalition. On Monday, the Cabinet Office minister described demands for David Cameron to publish a list of donors who had dined at No. 10 as “a bit of a nonsense”, only to be made to look a fool when the Prime Minister did precisely that a few hours later.
Then yesterday he advised motorists to put “a bit of extra fuel in a jerry can in the garage” to prepare for a possible fuel strike. He was soon rebuked by the Fire Bridges Union and the AA for encouraging panic buying [some petrol stations ran dry last night] and for ignoring the safety risks of storing fuel. As FBU general secretary Matt Wrack noted: “Those without garages may be tempted to store fuel in the home. In the event of a fire in the house or a neighbouring property, it would be disastrous.”
A day of high farce ended with transport minister Mike Penning admitting on Newsnight that Maude had made “a mistake”.
“You can’t store that amount of petrol. It was a mistake by the cabinet minister. He didn’t understand the size of a jerry can. He has apologised since.” [Not that anyone has heard Maude’s alleged apology].
Incoveniently, then, the government is today publishing an update to the Open Public Services white paper [also known as Cameron’s plan to “privatise nearly everything”], a project that Maude is responsible for. It remains to be seen whether he will be let anywhere near the airwaves.
There is now an acknowledgment among Conservatives that this has been the government’s worst week, with several days of damaging headlines from the papers. And the polls continue to reflect as much. Labour retains a 10-point lead over the Tories in the latest YouGov poll and its share of the vote has risen to 44 per cent, the highest level since last August.