Queues have snaked around petrol stations and many forecourts have been temporarily closed after Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude told the nation that ‘a bit of fuel in a jerry can in the garage is a sensible precaution’ in preparation for a potential fuel strike by Unite.
Both Maude and Cameron's press operation have been criticised for their handling of the incident.
Daily Mail columnist Andrew Pierce told PRWeek: ‘They are missing Andy Coulson. He may be tarnished by the phone hacking scandal but he would have seen the bear traps over pasties.
‘Maude is bright and clever but in a theatre he would be stage manager not front of house. Instead of highlighting Labour's difficulties - Unite provide 25 per cent of its funding - he sounded like a Downton Abbey toff giving advice to his servants.’
Press Association industrial correspondent Alan Jones added: ‘I think there was a view in government that this was a chance to deflect attention away from the Budget and cash for access row, and attack Unite, Labour's biggest donor, at the same time. But it backfired because of mixed messages on fuel filling - and panic buying that spread like wildfire and took everyone by surprise.
‘The union, meanwhile, has sat back and watched the chaos rather than have to deal with attacks on their action.’
Bell Pottinger Public Affairs director Stephen Lotinga said that Maude was having a ‘disastrous week’.
‘In a pretty awful attempt to steer the party funding story back towards Labour's union influence, he has ended up sparking panic buying at the pumps,’ said Lotinga.
The Times reported this morning that Downing Street insiders have admitted they have struggled to articulate clear advice for drivers before the possible strike by tanker drivers. They have spent three days trying to tread a line between ‘top up, a bit’ and ‘don’t queue – and definitely don’t panic.’
The Guardian reported that a senior Tory said: ‘Francis Maude has completely mucked up this week. He is to blame for the gargantuan queues outside petrol stations.’
Labour leader Ed Miliband said David Cameron is ‘presiding over a shambles’. He said: ‘In a delicate situation that demanded statesmanship, the Government showed partisanship.
‘They made a crude decision to play politics with petrol without regard for the consequence.’