Priming the pump for trouble

The fuel price protests, when they began to bite across Britain in mid-September, caught everyone-not least the ruling New Labour government-on the back foot.

The fuel price protests, when they began to bite across Britain in mid-September, caught everyone-not least the ruling New Labour government-on the back foot. Images of service stations with queues stretching off into the distance, "go slow" demonstrations on the motorways, and blockaded refinery gates all crowded the front pages, and yet the first response by Prime Minister Tony Blair and his most senior cabinet members was incredulity.

With general industrial unrest and organized protest raising the specter of the notorious coal miners' strikes of the early 1980s, Blair tried first to pressure Big Oil, and then the police, to tear down the blockades. Neither would. Oil companies claimed concern for their tanker truck drivers' safety; police said public order was better served by a less iron-fisted approach.

His calls on the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries to lower crude prices by raising output fell on deaf ears. Soon, the nation was at a near standstill.

Labour not listening

The real problem, of course, was that these protests were incongruous with the actions of the population that gave New Labour a landslide victory in 1997. Despite farmers, hauliers, and small business owners having long been vocal about their sense of disenfranchisement in Blair's New Britain, the PM appeared unwilling to acknowledge that his party's long-standing popularity was on shaky ground until the Conservatives edged ahead in the polls as the fuel crisis worsened.

Rather than respect the limits of his political power, Blair, with the aid of Home Secretary Jack Straw, last week marshaled together the Fuel Supply Task Force-made up of various politicos, representatives from the five oil majors, the association of UK independent oil companies, the police, the Trades Union Congress, and "several major hauliers"-to sign up to a memorandum of understanding (MOU) that will instate "more-robust systems to avoid disruption of fuel supplies."

"The events of past month have vividly demonstrated the importance of oil supplies to our society and economy," Straw spelled out.

Risk reduction

While Straw conceded it is "not possible to eliminate all risk to oil supplies," the MOU, he said, would "ensure that every signatory takes the necessary contingency action against possible future disruption." This would be done using "early warning systems," "crisis management systems," and "coordinated contingency plans," and by "tackl[ing] the potential for intimidations of tanker drivers."

The Conservatives, not surprisingly, swiftly jumped on the government for treating the fuel crisis as "a sort of tough law-and-order issue." Conservative transport spokesman Bernard Jenkin suggested New Labour would "cause more unrest by invoking special powers to force people to do things that they would not normally do." Point taken-although one that is a little rich coming from a party that has taken to the pre-election hustings in favor of hardline law-and-order legislation for the country.

The more apparent censure of Blair's behavior in the wake of the fuel blockades is that, in obliging oil companies-forcibly-to maintain supplies as the utilities do, he is guilty once again of a flaw that continues to eat away at his support from the nation's electorate-"control freakery"-and that might finally prove tragic for New Labour at the polls.

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