Prime Minister David Cameron welcomed an announcement by Unite that it would hold off strike action by tanker drivers until after the Easter holiday, but the Tories attacked Labour leader Ed Miliband when he published a list of 43 meals he had with party donors, including seven from the union’s general secretary Len McCluskey.
Tensions between the parties were further heightened with Tory emergency planning minister Francis Maude urged to resign over his calls for people to stock up on fuel. Mr Maude was partly blamed after a woman from York suffered 40 per cent burns in an accident that reportedly took place as she poured petrol into a jerry can.
The motoring organisation the AA accused drivers of taking “stupid and very dangerous” actions trying to fill their cars with other organisations demanding that the minister should go.
The decision by Unite to not strike over the Easter holiday took time to filter through to motorists as drivers continued to queue and many forecourts were closed to prevent chaos on the roads.
In Scotland there was an appeal for calm from SNP finance secretary John Swinney after it emerged that 97 per cent of forecourts have been supplied with fuel. The UK government relaxed EU driver rules to allow tanker drivers to supply garages across the UK more quickly increasing the maximum drive time per day from nine to 11 hours.
The Petrol Retailers Association said petrol sales increased by more than 170 per cent yesterday, while sales of diesel were up by almost 80 per cent.
Unite and the seven distribution companies involved in the dispute are in contact with the conciliation service Acas, but no substantive talks will be held until next week.
The union said it had been trying for more than a year to establish minimum standards in the fuel oil distribution industry and halt a “race to the bottom”.
Officials called for minimum standards on health and safety procedures, training, pensions, rates of pay, hours and holidays, equal opportunities and disciplinary procedures.
Assistant general secretary Diana Holland said: “We will not be calling Easter strike action as we focus on substantive talks through Acas. We do still retain the right to call strike action for after Easter, should those talks break down.
“It should be stressed that what we are seeking is reasonable and no more than what is in place elsewhere in the industry. There have been minimum standards governing the offshore oil industry since 2000 covering health and safety, training, and terms and conditions.
“This is not a political dispute. It is an industrial dispute and the government’s recent rhetoric will not help us achieve a negotiated settlement. They must set aside their political objectives and work with us, the employers, retailers and oil companies to achieve an outcome that is good for the industry and the country.”
But with strike action averted the row focused on Labour’s links with Unite.
The Tories published a list of MPs, more than half of Labour’s contingent in Westminster, who are sponsored by the union and pointed out that it had donated £5 million to the party. Conservative Party chairman Baroness Warsi said that with Unite donating more than £5m to Labour since Mr Miliband became leader, the party had received £630,000 for each of his meetings with Mr McCluskey. “This is damning proof that the Labour Party is the political wing of ‘Red’ Len McCluskey’s Unite trade union,” she said.
Mr Miliband has called on the Prime Minister to apologise for “presiding over a shambles on petrol” and accused the government of diverting attention from criticism of the Budget.
His criticism was taken up by a range of organisations which were critical of Mr Maude who had suggested people store fuel in jerry cans. Yesterday Halford’s said that the sale of jerry cans is now up 600 per cent from last year.
Brian Madderson, of the Retail Motor Industry, said: “Government created this fuel crisis and now must take full control.
“Panic-buying continues, with surging demand at forecourts. Starting slowly on Monday, motorists and business users have pushed up demand rapidly over just four days to yesterday’s unsustainable levels.”
The Petrol Retailers Association, which represents about 5,500 garages, blamed government advice, including the much-criticised call by Mr Maude.
“This is exactly what we didn’t want – people panic-buying,” a spokesman said. “Deliveries are still being made to garages and we are advising people to continue with their normal buying habits.”
AA president Edmund King added: “Some people seem to have lost any sense of proportion. Petrol is a volatile liquid with highly inflammable vapours. Drivers should not be filling up any containers with petrol or we will see more tragic accidents. Now that there is no threat of a strike over the Easter weekend we hope that things will get back to normal.”