Richard North, 03/10/2021  

It seems odd that the government is calling in the Army at this stage of the fuel crisis when, apart from the southeast and London - and a few other hotspots – the supply situation seems to be stabilising.

But then, on reflection, this is precisely the best moment, politically, to call for outside aid – when the problem is already well on its way to being resolved. That way, when by the middle of next week the supply has been restored and problems have melted away as fast as they emerged, the government can claim credit for its timely intervention, and bask in the glory of another job well done.

That the Conservative Party conference starts today is also probably material. Under pressure even from his adoring faithful. Johnson can stand up and proclaim that he is "doing something", and then park the issue until events take their course.

In many respects, this a classic example of the "purple banana" stratagem, which I described back in May 2008. The theory of this rests on the response to a rampant epidemic of infectious disease in the community, the cause of which is uncertain. In this event, the government can rely on the standard profile of an epidemic, which follows a "bell shaped curve" – irrespective of any action taken.

Initially, the disease incidence will rise exponentially. It will then slacken off near the peak and, after flattening off, decline precipitously. Thus, close scrutiny of the figures can yield clues as to when a decline might occur.

Then, in order to demonstrate that it is still in control, the government can order a totally irrelevant action to be taken, such as painting all bananas purple, and wait for the decline. When it happens, credit can then be claimed for timely and effective action.

But, for the whole nation to restore rational buying patterns, it is also necessary to restore confidence in the supply chain. To have a number of Army tankers parading for the television cameras will do much to persuade drivers that the situation is under control.

Bearing in mind that there is absolutely no substance to this particular crisis, this ploy would probably work even if the tankers were filled with water and just drove around the neighbourhoods while the real tankers caught up with the demand.

As such, this crisis has much in common with the great toilet roll panic of March last year, when supermarket orders doubled overnight and suppliers had difficulty getting stock to the points of sale, leading to temporary gaps in supermarket shelves.

That it was also an engineered crisis was intimated by the Telegraph on 24 September, when it reported that BP had sparked the crisis as a ploy to get the government to relax visa rules on foreign drivers.

Having reached much the same conclusion about the lack of substance, I relayed the Telegraph report on my blog, the following day. But now, more than a week later, the Mail has discovered for itself that which was already known.

In the usual, self-important way of the legacy media, the paper thus "reveals" that the UK was fooled into the crippling fuel crisis. When ministers met road groups to fix a shortage of tanker drivers, the headline claims, a leak sparked panic. And now, we are told, the government is launching an official mole hunt.

Nevertheless, reporter Guy Adams does add considerably to the detail. In what is a lengthy article, he takes us back to 16 September when Cabinet Office civil servants hosted the meeting with several major employers who were struggling to recruit sufficient HGV drivers.

Tesco, McDonald's and Amazon were invited to send a representative to the talks, which took place via Zoom. Also on the call, which lasted 90 minutes, were senior executives from Unilever, BP and Eddie Stobart, plus trade groups representing the trucking industry: Logistics UK and the Road Haulage Association (RHA).

Although the talks were held in confidence, at some point in the ensuing six days, at least one participant decided to leak a relatively detailed account of proceedings to ITV, which retailed the substance of the meeting in a story on Wednesday of last week.

The following night, ITV alleged that BP was preparing to "ration fuel deliveries as some petrol stations close over supply problems", supposedly relying on remarks made by the oil firm’s head of retail, Hanna Hofer, at the supposedly confidential meeting.

ITV's business editor Joel Hills accurately claimed that Hofer had described the situation on forecourts as "bad, very bad", saying that fuel stocks were at "two-thirds of normal" and "declining rapidly", and adding that BP was preparing to restrict deliveries "very soon".

But the ITV report failed to quote remarks by Hofer later in the meeting clarifying the relatively minor nature of the shortages that BP was facing. We are told that she stressed that her firm had been successfully "managing" a shortage of roughly 40 drivers (equating to around 10 percent of its workforce) for several months. She added that it was having a barely noticeable effect at the pumps, with just five of BP's roughly 1,200 garages actually running out of fuel each day.

It's unclear, writes Adams, whether Hills was aware of these particular caveats when he produced his dispatch. He does not appear to have been passed a full transcript or recording of the meeting, and it is entirely possible that his source failed to mention them.

The audience was told that BP was experiencing "tens" of "outages". Some might have wrongly assumed that the thick end of 100 stations were running dry. All of which, says Adams, may go some way to explaining why the report gained traction - and began to panic motorists in the process.

But, he writes, another significant factor in sending the BP report viral was the energetic contribution of prominent anti-Brexit campaigners who began gleefully sharing ITV's report within minutes of publication. Inevitably, and almost entirely wrongly, they sought to claim that BP's driver shortage had been largely caused by Britain's departure from the EU.

Typical of the output was remainer zombie Lord Adonis, who tweeted: "Brexit is now leading to fuel rationing". One of the hundreds of people who shared tweets by Hills promoting the report remarked: "Well done to everyone who voted Brexit, Muppets". And so on.

Then, as queues started to form on forecourts on the night of 23 September, RHA spokesman Rod McKenzie spoke on Sky News and BBC's Newsnight to discuss the revelation, stoking the flames, claiming the "issues are down to Brexit, the pandemic and a historic shortage of drivers".

Known for his anti-Brexit views, McKenzie - motivated by the desire to use EU drivers, "because they are addicted to cheap European labour" - is suspected of being the source of the leak. A government source says no one else round that table stood to benefit from making that information public, and the RHA have form for leaking other meetings with government.

Needless to say, the RHA has denied responsibility, but a senior government source is unconvinced. He expects the organisation to cooperate fully with the Cabinet Office inquiry which has now been convened, to discover what caused "this week's surreal and entirely unnecessary fuel crisis".

Whoever, the original culprit though, the willingness of prominent remainers to believe the worst, and to spread false information, should not pass unnoticed. A group which continues to profess outrage at Vote Leave's "lies" is not ill-disposed to spreading its own brand of disinformation, regardless of the cost or inconvenience caused.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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