UK Politics

Hague defends government actions over fuel strike

William Hague has defended ministers' handling of a possible fuel strike, arguing the country is better prepared as a result of their actions.

He told the BBC they "would have been criticised either way" - whether they had advised motorists to keep their tanks topped up or not.

There have been shortages of petrol at stations across the country, although demand now appears to be easing.

Labour's Yvette Cooper said ministers had been "disgracefully irresponsible".

The Unite union, which represents 2,062 tanker drivers, is in dispute with seven fuel companies over safety standards and working terms and conditions.

A strike over the Easter bank holiday has been ruled out, and talks are due to take place with the conciliation service Acas.

'Thatcher moment'

The government has faced widespread criticism for urging motorists to keep their petrol tanks topped up, and calls have been made for the resignation of Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude, who advised people to store petrol in jerrycans in case of industrial action.

Speaking to the BBC's Andrew Marr programme, shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper accused ministers of trying to provoke a confrontation with unions similar to that between Margaret Thatcher and the miners in the 1980s.

"They created this petrol crisis," she said. "What they did was they caused a run on the pumps for political reasons because they wanted a 'Thatcher moment'."

She also said the government was "hopelessly out of touch on law and order", announcing plans to make crime and anti-social behaviour a focus of Labour's forthcoming local election campaign.

But Mr Hague said: "I think my colleagues who've handled these things would have been criticised either way because had they not set out the precautions that people should take and alerted people to the situation, then if a strike took place in the coming weeks it would be said that they were complacent and hadn't prepared the country.

"The country is in a better state of preparedness now then it was a week ago for the eventuality of a tanker strike.

"I think they've handled that correctly."

He did say that Mr Maude's comments - which prompted safety warnings by the Fire Brigades Union - were a "technical error".

Health Secretary Andrew Lansley also told Sky News it was a case of "damned if you do, damned if you don't" over warnings about a fuel strike, adding that the government was "building resilience in the system".

But Green Party candidate for London mayor Jenny Jones said the situation was "a shocking indictment" of the government's environmental policy, and ministers should have been "moving us towards a less oil-dependant economy" for the last two years.

'Out of touch'

The government has come under attack for a number of its policies in recent days, including the decision to imposed VAT on hot pies and pasties.

The scrapping of age-related tax allowances for the over 65s - announced in the Budget and dubbed the "granny tax" - has also been criticised.

Labour say the moves show the government is "out of touch" with ordinary people, but Mr Hague brushed off those remarks.

"I think when critics don't have a substantive alternative to offer, well then they reach for the 'out of touch criticism'," he said.

"Well, it is very much in touch with what this country needs and we are going to carry that through to success."

He said the government would not be "fazed or deterred" from its plans despite what he called "a controversial week".

The BBC's political correspondent Iain Watson said there was a feeling at Westminster that this could be a defining moment for the government, and the "out of touch" argument could be gaining considerable traction with the public.

But Conservative MP George Eustice blamed an "extraordinary" media "over-reaction" to Mr Maude's comments.

"At the moment it's very difficult for the government to get a good hearing," he told the BBC's Sunday Politics.

"My advice would be to stop, do nothing for a month apart from try to get Boris Johnson re-elected [as London mayor]… and then work on a coherent, clear plan for post-May to try to get back in the saddle and back on the front foot."

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