Brilliant. We seem to have had a fuel crisis without there being a fuel crisis. I am often embarrassed to be British, and to live in Britain, but the week just gone has been particularly mortifying. Francis Anthony Aylmer Maude, MP for Horsham and Cabinet Office Minister in the current government, pretty much single-handedly created a national petrol panic which was needless in the first instance, at the very least inconvenient and maddening, and actually dangerous in certain cases. The head of the UK Petroleum Industry Association called the whole thing “self-inflicted insanity.”
There have been calls for Maude’s resignation, but he isn’t hearing them. It may be unfair to blame the whole sorry mess on one man. Equally, it’s tempting to see some kind of government conspiracy behind it all, in which Maude was simply playing his part. The notorious, out-of-touch “jerry cans” advice may have exploded, to coin an unfortunate phrase, but in many ways, this might have been a happy rather than unhappy accident.
After all, this government seems to have done very little since their woeful Budget except deflect attention from their woeful Budget. You wouldn’t put anything past them. Also, as Tories, they are scarier in many ways than the last lot, comprised as the Cabinet now is, of out-of-touch public schoolboys, led by a PR who is no more interested in politics, pasties, petrol or the greater good of the country than any distant relative of Princess Diana who’s married to the elder daughter of the 8th Baronet of Sheffield raised on a 300-acre estate would be expected to be. David Cameron is interested only in looking after his own.
Anyway, I’m blaming Francis Maude. To be honest, I don’t care whether he goes or not. He’ll be replaced by an identical grey suit and nothing will change. I barely use my car. I’m seriously considering getting rid of it. But all week I’ve walked past the garage at the corner of my road and it’s had queues of drivers snaking out into a main road, causing disruption and ill-feeling for no reason whatsoever. I’ve seen people queuing up on foot with green petrol cans. Not “jerry cans”, because nobody in this century has jerry cans. Nor, Francis Maude, does everybody have a garage. His stupid remark: “When it makes sense, a bit of extra fuel in a jerry can in the garage is a sensible precaution to take.” Sensible? Oh yes. Even though it turned out to have been lethal advice based not on sense, but on a dreamy vision of Middle England even the Daily Mail might not recognise.
What I hate about Maude is what I hate about this government, and what I hate about George Osbourne and David Cameron and the rest of them: he seems to have no notion of what it’s like to be an ordinary person in this country going about their business. They don’t know what “making ends meet” means. They call the millions raised by the 50p tax rate “next to nothing.” They get themselves in a PR pickle about pasties because either they’ve never been in a Greggs – and why should they? – but because they’re only worried about what that will play like anyway. I don’t care if George Osbourne has had a steak bake or not. But don’t run the country if you haven’t, that’s all, and if you haven’t employ someone who has (radical idea?). Because a hell of a lot of people go into Greggs every day, and it’s a successful British business that serves ordinary people hot food, and the Government want to tax it out of business because – why? – they think that 20p on the price of a meal is next to nothing, and won’t hurt anybody.
So, Francis Maude, who thinks we all have a garage and a supply of 1930s German military petrol containers, is merely a lightning rod for all that’s wrong with this depressing government. “It’s not for us to give advice on what people should do,” he told Sky News, on the day the non-crisis turned into a crisis, careful not to sound like the nanny state of course, because he’s a Tory, and in that respect favours less government in the usual hypocritical way of right-wing, free-market politicians. “It is our obligation to tell them what is going on so that they can make their own decisions.”
These are the facts of the matter: tanker drivers at five of the seven main supply companies voted in favour of industrial action over terms and conditions, as well as safety standards. Unite, which represents around 2,000 drivers who deliver to Shell, Esso and major supermarkets, is demanding minimum standards for pay, hours, holiday and redundancy. They may still go out on strike – although not until after Easter – but if they don’t, who’s won? Ordinary drivers, inconvenienced and panicked for no reason? I don’t think so. The woman with 40% burns? Definitely not. Unite? No, because we’ve essentially had a practice run of what it would be like if those greedy, conniving unions had their selfish, money-grabbing way about luxuries like holiday and pay and safety, eh?
From where I’m sitting, the Government seems to have won, in the sense that they’ve had a week of further distraction from the real issues – NHS, tax – and they’ve still got Francis Maude if ever there’s another emergency in 1930s Germany. If only one of the main opposition parties had a leader worth the job.
(Once again, I speak as someone who was not directly affected by the petrol “crisis,” so I’m not moaning on my own behalf.)