Prime Minister David Cameron has had one of his worst weeks since coming to power. Now he’s looking to Britain’s biggest union and trucking companies to sort out a dispute that threatens even bigger trouble.
The Labour opposition said a cut in the top tax rate in the March 21 budget only helped Tory millionaires. The Conservative treasurer quit after suggesting access to Cameron could be bought. The press branded a freezing of pensioners’ tax allowances a “granny tax.” Cameron and his finance minister looked out of touch on another budget measure that slapped tax on hot take-out snacks -- “pastygate.” Then ministers contradicted each other on whether motorists should stockpile gasoline as a fuel-truck drivers’ strike loomed.
Labour leader Ed Miliband called it “a shambles.” With local elections a month away, his party has stretched its lead over Cameron’s Conservatives in the opinion polls. Ministers are anxious to avert a strike that might cut gasoline supplies, aware of the damage done to business and the government when fuel-price protesters blockaded refineries in 2000. As panic buying hit gas stations, the Unite union ruled out any strike until after the Easter weekend.
“The week after the budget, the government should be in control of the agenda, and instead they’ve had a series of largely self-inflicted wounds,” Philip Cowley, professor of politics at Nottingham University, said in an interview. “While many of the issues are trivial, ministers should be troubled by the hostility they’ve seen from usually supportive papers.”
‘Made in Downing Street’
“Total Panic,” ran the front-page headline on The Sun, Britain’s best-selling newspaper, this morning. The Times headline told of a “A fuel crisis made in Downing Street,” Cameron’s official London residence.
Cameron urged Unite to “call off the strike entirely” in a recorded statement after a meeting of the government’s emergency committee in London today.
The Conservative share of the vote in a House of Commons special election yesterday in Bradford, northern England, slumped to 8 percent from 31 percent in the 2010 general election. Still, Labour failed to retain the seat in a district with a large Muslim electorate, surprisingly losing to a former party lawmaker who now represents the anti-war Respect Party.
Long queues formed outside many gas stations for a second day amid fears of a strike. Demand for gasoline rose 172 percent yesterday from a week earlier, while that for diesel fuel increased 77 percent, the RMI Petrol retailers’ group said in a statement.
Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude said two days ago that drivers would be wise to keep their cars topped up and have a spare jerry can of gasoline or diesel at home to prepare for a possible strike that could hit supplies to 90 percent of Britain’s 8,700 gas stations.
Yesterday morning, Roads Minister Mike Penning said Maude’s advice was wrong. “It was a mistake,” Penning told BBC Radio 4. “He didn’t understand the size of a jerry can.”
RMI Petrol’s chairman, Brian Madderson, said that “thanks to Francis Maude,” many stores had sold out of jerry cans.
“The fuel companies are working flat out to resupply petrol stations,” Cameron said today. “Everything that can be done is being done.”
A woman in the northern city of York had to be hospitalized yesterday with 40 percent burns after gasoline that she was decanting from one container to another in her kitchen ignited, the local fire service said in a statement.
“The public do not understand the extreme dangers posed by petrol handling or storage,” Matt Wrack, who heads the Fire Brigades Union, said in a statement today. “Government needs to issue urgent professionally based advice to warn the public before we have another incident, perhaps with far worse consequences.”
“It was a political invention, the panic of the last couple of days, and the nation and some people are paying a very, very heavy price for that,” Ed Balls, Labour’s finance spokesman, told the BBC.
“This is obviously a desperate incident and a terrible thing that has happened to this woman and my heart goes out to her and her family,” Cameron said.
Drivers in Unite working for fuel-distribution companies whose customers include Tesco Plc, J. Sainsbury Plc, BP Plc and Royal Dutch Shell Plc voted this week to strike in protest at working conditions and changes to their pensions.
The union said in a statement today it won’t strike over the four-day Easter holiday April 6-9 and was ready to hold “substantive talks” mediated by the government-funded Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service “as soon as possible.” ACAS said today it hopes formal discussions can begin early next week. The union needs to give seven days’ notice of a strike.
Energy Secretary Ed Davey met with haulage-company officials in London today to discuss contingency planning, including training more military drivers, his department said in an e-mailed statement.
Budget measures to cut the top rate of income tax and freeze allowances for pensioners drew accusations from Miliband that “millions will be paying more while millionaires will be paying less.” Five days later, Cameron was forced to disclose the occasions he’s dined with major Conservative donors after the Sunday Times published secretly filmed comments of a fundraiser appearing to offer access to the premier in exchange for 250,000 pounds ($397,000).
VAT on Pasties
“Pastygate” came about as ministers tried to deflect complaints from bakers including Greggs Plc, the U.K.’s biggest such chain, about a budget decision to extend value-added tax to cover hot food that they sell.
Cameron used a joint news conference with International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge two days ago to say the levy created a level playing field with other hot take-out food. He then assured reporters of his own enthusiasm for the Cornish pasty, a West-country snack consisting of meat and vegetables baked in a pastry case.
The premier, who has spent vacations in Cornwall and whose youngest child was born there, even described the last pasty he’d eaten, a large one from a stand at Leeds railway station in Yorkshire. Local reporters discovered it closed at least two years ago.
A day earlier, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne told the House of Commons Treasury Committee as it quizzed him on the budget that he couldn’t recall the last time he’d eaten a pasty from Greggs, drawing accusations from Labour that he was out of touch with ordinary people’s concerns.
“I think that there haven’t been the best of headlines for us,” the Tory chairwoman, Sayeeda Warsi, told BBC Radio 4 this morning.
With elections including that for the mayor of London scheduled for May 3, Labour has opened up a 10 percentage-point lead in opinion polls over the Tories. A YouGov Plc poll for today’s Sun put Labour at 44 percent and the Conservatives at 34 percent. Labour’s lead was only five points in a similar survey published on budget day. YouGov questioned 1,701 voters March 28 and yesterday for the latest poll, for which no margin of error was given.
“They look at the front bench, they see them all very well-dressed, well turned out, well-fed, and perhaps feel that they’re in a different world to them,” David Davis, a former Conservative minister, told Radio 4, summing up what he sees as the average voter’s view of Cameron’s Cabinet. “Unfortunately that’s a very dangerous allegation to make against a political party, if it sticks.”