'Don't panic. Don't panic'

Clive Dunn as Corporal Jones in BBC's Dad's Army
Is the government's response right?

Ministers risk looking like Corporal Jones in TV's Dad's Army as their insistence that there is no need to panic about the possibility of an impending strike by tanker drivers looks like, well, panic.

It's clear that Francis Maude went more than a little off-piste when he suggested motorists might consider filling up a "jerry can" and putting it in the garage, as well as filling up their tank.

However, it's also clear that the government has had a strategy since the weekend - and well before the Tory funding allegations emerged - of encouraging stories which might persuade car drivers to stock up with petrol.

On Sunday, for example, the BBC and some newspapers ran reports about troops being trained to drive tankers in the event of a strike.

When ministers met to plan for a possible fuel strike they were warned that, since the fuel blockade in 2000, many petrol stations had closed and, therefore, petrol stocks outside the refineries were much lower.

They were also told that people who normally drive around with their tanks less than a third full increased that to more than four-fifths during the last strike.

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Thus, they concluded that if they could get drivers to fill up long before a strike they could significantly increase the nation's stock of fuel and decrease the impact of a strike. Tory folklore recalls that one reason Mrs Thatcher defeated the miners' strikes of 1984 was because she had made contingency plans and built up coal stocks outside the mines.

So, there was, if you like, an attempt to induce slow, steady, controlled panic buying of petrol long before the tanker driver's union, Unite, even name a strike date - which incidentally it hasn't done yet, and still may not.

What today has revealed is that - as the contradictory nature of those words suggest - panics are rarely slow, steady and controlled, particularly if a minister goes off his script and the media latches onto a narrative about a government that is making mistakes and looking out of touch.

PS The suggestion that people have garages and jerry cans will now surely be added to the "out of touch" charge sheet being assembled by the government's critics.

On it already are the revelation that the chancellor can't remember when he last bought a pasty from Greggs, that you can eat them tax free if they're cold, that the ex-Tory treasurer suggested that a quarter of a million pounds bought you a place at a donor party with the Camerons.

The Conservatives must be counting the days until the Easter holidays. Labour must think it's Christmas already.

Talking of which I'm away for a few days now, so service will be a little less regular than normal.