- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 7, 2000

Prime Minister Tony Blair's government is about to stiff-arm the protesters who shut down Great Britain seven weeks ago over high gas taxes.

Gordon Brown, chancellor of the exchequer for the Labor government, is set to take the wraps off a budget outline that offers only a tiny fraction of the tax relief an angry coalition of Britain's truckers and farmers had been demanding.

And with Britain's most prominent anti-tax activists fighting among themselves and fuel-tax protests a fading memory across much of Western Europe, analysts say it appears yet another grass-roots challenge to the continent's high fuel taxes has fizzled.

British press reports indicate that Mr. Blair and Mr. Brown will only propose a freeze on future gasoline tax increases, despite a growing budget surplus and despite the demands of the truckers and farmers who led September's paralyzing strikes for a major cut in fuel taxes the highest in Europe.

Mr. Blair's government was shaken by the protests that swept Europe in early September, with the opposition Conservatives attacking the prime minister for what they said was his indecisive response to the crisis.

But with opinion polls showing public sympathy has shifted away from the protesters in recent weeks, Mr. Blair went on the offensive in a speech Friday.

"Do we build on stability or knock the foundations away?" Mr. Blair asked. "Do we blow the surplus we have built, and so risk inflation and interest-rate rises?"

Mr. Blair vowed not to make policy to please those "threatening so-called Armageddon."

The Labor government got a boost this weekend when the Confederation of British Industry, a leading business group, came out against a new round of blockades.

"There are so many ways that you can peacefully demonstrate that do not mess up the productive means of the country," Confederation Director General Digby Jones said Sunday at the organization's annual meeting in Birmingham.

Leaders of Britain's anti-fuel-tax movement have fallen prey to internal squabbling.

David Handley, a dairy farmer from Monmouthshire and the chairman of the 2-month-old People's Fuel Lobby, told the London Daily Telegraph yesterday his organization was reducing its tax-cutting demand by more than half, from 38 cents per liter to about 17 cents.

With some service stations already running out of fuel amid renewed panic buying across the country, business leaders here urged the country to boycott the protests, which they said could inflict "immense damage" on British industry.

A gallon of gas that costs about $1.65 in the United States sells for about $4.75 in Britain, with taxes accounting for three quarters of the British pump price.

But Mr. Handley and Brynle Williams, the Welsh farmer who came to personify the September protests, are reportedly divided about whether to proceed with a planned giant traffic-stopping truck caravan to London Nov. 14.

Mr. Handley said he opposes a blockade of fuel depots a tactic that proved highly effective in September but which the government warned threatens energy supplies to hospitals, schools and other public services.

"We're not stupid," he said.

The fuel tax protests started in France in late August and quickly spread to virtually every other European Union country, disrupting ports and snarling traffic arteries.

European governments have traditionally used hefty gas taxes to finance generous social welfare programs. The prospect of a continentwide anti-tax movement appeared to put the whole system in doubt.

But Europe's center-left governments have headed off the threat with modest concessions to truckers and other fuel-dependent lobbies.

In France, Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin took some heat from other European leaders for offering the first and most generous tax breaks to end the demonstrations.

"And the government appears to have gotten away with it," said Philip Gordon, director of the Center on the United States and France at the Brookings Institution.

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