Pouring oil on stormy waters

The government's supposed 'Thatcher moment' has backfired spectacularly, writes Eddie Ford

Just because the mainstream media all agree on something does not necessarily mean it is a lie. So we have the overwhelming consensus that last week represented an extraordinary bad week for the Tories and the coalition government as a whole. Every announcement, statement or initiative merely generated a new rash of scathing (and mocking) headlines. Nothing went right. Crisis management and near panic reigned. Caught in the spotlight, government ministers looked ever more foolish and self-serving - or just plain venal.

We had the fallout from George Osborne’s budget, which was a political and PR disaster. Like the ‘granny tax’ which effectively penalised those ‘responsible’ pensioners who had worked hard all their lives, sensibly tucking away a little sum each month and reading the Daily Mail. Not to mention the 5p reduction in the top rate of tax for the wealthy, at a time when workers are facing either a pay freeze or an absolute drop in wages; if not the loss of their jobs. Such measures make it obvious that the government believes its primary duty is to safeguard and advance the interests of the country’s top 300,000 households. Too obvious as far as the more foresighted defenders of capitalism are concerned, as all this seriously throws into doubt the moral/political legitimacy of the ruling class and hence by extension the actual rule of capital itself.

Then there was the ‘cash for access’ scandal that erupted over Peter Cruddas, the Conservative Party co-treasurer. Yes, pay around £250,000 or so, he told potential donors to the Tories, and you can join the “premier league” of donors who get special access to the corridors of power. Kiss the hem of power. Attend private dinners at the prime minster’s residence in Downing Street. Visits to Chequers. With a “policy committee” thrown in for good measure. Very nice. Even a bit of a bargain, you could argue.

Nor did it end there. It never does. When Cruddas was told by the undercover reporters that their money came from Liechtenstein, it being illegal under current legislation for foreign companies/agencies to donate to British political parties, he did not blink an eye. Instead, he helpfully suggested that they make use of his “compliance unit” to disguise the source of the donations by routing them through a UK company or appropriately “registered” UK citizens. Not that communists, as proletarian internationalists, support a ban on foreign donations - solidarity is no crime.

And to make matters even worse still, all these services (legal, semi-legal or illegal) were proffered by a man with an estimated private fortune of at least £750 million. His own company, CMC Markets plc, is worth some £1.25 billion. Naturally, he also has homes in Monaco, Antibes, Hertfordshire and Piccadilly, and regularly travels between them in a private jet. Now the entire world knew that the Tory Party co-treasurer was a dodgy corporate spiv with big money to splash round.

In other words, the whole Cruddas affair stinks of filthy lucre and political insider dealing. Just the sort of image that the Tories have spent years trying to shed. Fuck. Back to square one.

Downing Street had hoped to close down the issue when it announced on April 1 - how fitting - that Lord Feldman would take charge of an internal party inquiry into the obviously absurd idea that there was a ‘tariff’ for meeting the prime minister. But, moving into the territory of high farce, Feldman had to be quickly withdrawn in favour of Lord Gold (a senior litigation lawyer) from the inquiry team after it emerged that in fact he was the one who had appointed Cruddas to the position of co-treasurer. Could things get any worse?

Next we had the comical attempts by senior Tories to present themselves as ordinary folk, just like you and me, in response to the outcry over the ‘pasty tax’ - ie, the imposition of 20% VAT on all food served above “ambient” air temperature, such as supermarket rotisserie chicken, toasted sandwiches, pies and, of course, the beloved pasty. Or maybe not so beloved, to judge by the nonplussed expression on Osborne’s face when asked by the treasury select committee on March 27 if he could recall the last time he ate a Cornish pasty - leading some internet wag to suggest that at a pre-budget treasury presentation Osborne was told that Cornish pasties were “similar to mini boeufs en croute”. Pressed further on the great pasty question, Osborne blithely stated that cold pasties were not VAT-liable - so what was the fuss? Needless to say, The Sun newspaper - intent on doing over the Tories for the budget - ran the inevitable headline, “Let them eat cold pasty” (March 28).

Even worse, if anything, was the sight of the cabinet office minister Francis Maude determinedly munching on a pasty in front of the cameras to prove his proletarian credentials - immediately evoking memories of John Selwyn Gummer, the agricultural minister in the Thatcher government, virtually force-feeding a hamburgers to his four-year-old daughter at the height of the ‘mad cow’ scare in 1990.

The most bizarre episode of all was David Cameron pretending that he had eaten - and enjoyed - a hot pasty manufactured by the West Cornwall Pasty Company at a Leeds train station. Unfortunately for Cameron though, the company has not had an outlet in Leeds train station since 2007. Major embarrassment for Cameron, now looking like a Tim Nice But Dim character from a Harry Enfield show - only not particularly nice: more cynical. A Tory toff who is out of touch - which, of course, he is.

Thatcher moment

Obviously, the Tories needed to create a diversion - quick, before events spiralled out of control even more. And they thought they had found one in the shape of the Unite union. Unite, whose 2,062 tanker drivers supply petrol to 90% of forecourts in the UK, had balloted for action on March 25. The union, quite correctly, is demanding that the seven haulage companies involved agree to minimum standards for pay, hours, holidays and redundancy - as well as establishing an appropriate forum to agree industry-wide best practice on issues such as training and safety procedures. Clearly Bolshevik madness.

Unite issued a statement saying there had been “unrelenting attacks” on drivers’ terms and conditions. For instance, they are working longer and longer hours, mainly due to the fact that the profit-hungry bosses are cutting the scheduled time given to get from A to B - meaning that many drivers are not getting enough sleep. Or resorting to various drugs in order to stay awake longer, an obviously dangerous situation for both drivers and the general public. Some haulage companies even impose fines on drivers who fail to meet the new delivery targets.

However, thanks to the existing trade union laws, the mandate for strike action expires after one month - additionally, the union has to give seven days’ prior notice of a strike. Practically meaning that Unite, and the tanker drivers, have got to declare the strike dates by April 16. If not, any putative action cannot go ahead without a fresh ballot. Meanwhile, various negotiations between Unite and the haulage bosses were still ongoing - strike action, of whatever sort, was far from inevitable.

No matter for the Tories. They saw, or thought they did, the perfect opportunity to distract the attention of the media away from Tory corruption and towards the Labour Party by trying to mount a scare about union bosses holding the country to ransom. After all, the unions, including Unite, bankroll Labour. In this way, the Tories hoped to utilise the disclosure by Ed Miliband on March 30 that he has had eight formal meetings or dinners (Cornish pasties?) with Len McCluskey, the Unite general secretary, since he was elected Labour leader in September 2010. Surely a chance to turn the tables on Labour - too good to miss.

Thus the Conservative Party sent out a ‘secret’ memo to constituency associations outlining their cynical strategy to exploit, and ramp up, the dispute between Unite and the haulage companies. Unfortunately for them however, the memo was quoted in full by Charles Moore in the pages of The Daily Telegraph. There we read: “This is our Thatcher moment. In order to defeat the coming miners’ strike, she stockpiled coal. When the strike came, she weathered it, and the Labour Party, tarred by the strike, was humiliated. In order to defeat the coming fuel drivers’ strike, we want supplies of petrol stockpiled. Then, if the strike comes, we will weather it, and Labour, in hock to the Unite union, will be blamed” (The Daily Telegraph March 30).

Yes, history could be rerun - made even more glorious. The tank drivers would take on the role of the miners and become the new ‘enemy within’. Brilliant. Perhaps the Tory media could turn Len McCluskey, or even Diana Holland - Unite’s assistant general secretary - into the new Arthur Scargill. Hate figures. A mortal threat to the great British nation. What a winner - nothing could go wrong.

Determined to stoke up the situation, with talk about bringing in the army to deliver fuel to the petrol stations, government ministers told the public to “top up” on fuel. Ed Davey, the energy secretary, advised travellers who did not want their holidays “disrupted by these strikers” - these evil people - that they should “make sure their tanks are full-up well in advance”. Similarly, Maude offered the now infamous advice to put a “bit of extra fuel” in jerry cans as a “sensible precaution”. Getting in on the act too, Cameron stated that it would be a “sensible thing” to top up your tank - even though he knew it was quite likely that the strike would not take place.

At the same time, the prime minister renewed his call for a £50,000 cap on donations to political parties - trying to make us get angry about McCluskey and forget about Cruddas. Total hypocrisy. Cameron was making a bid to financially cripple, if not bankrupt, the Labour Party. On the other hand, the Tory Party, with its countless connections and ties to wealthy individuals and the establishment in general, would not be unduly troubled by such a cap.

But, as we all know, the Tory plan ended in ignominious failure, backfiring spectacularly in their face. Predictably, the advice - and the headlines - triggered panic buying. The Retail Motor Industry Federation (RMI), which represents more than 5,500 petrol stations, issued a survey showing an 81% rise in petrol sales on March 28 from the same day a week before, with an equivalent 43% increase in diesel sales. Other groups representing petrol retailers bitterly complained that the Tory advice, or plea, to keep fuel tanks topped had caused an unnecessary fuel shortage. For almost everyone concerned, including newspaper editors, it was painfully transparent what Conservative game plan had been - to whip up panic, creating an entirely artificial shortage in the process, purely to serve the narrow interests of a deeply rattled Tory Party.

Delivering a damning verdict on the Tories, Brian Madderson - chairman of the RMI - wrote to Davey saying his members’ confidence in the government’s ability to manage the consequences of the tanker drivers’ dispute had been “abruptly shaken” by all this. The coalition government has been made to look idiotic and desperate, even if it did manage for a few solitary days to get what it wanted - to take the Cruddas and ‘cash-for-access’ off the front pages. But just not in the way they expected.