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How Robert Halfon MP froze fuel duty and won a victory for "white van conservatism"

By Matthew Barrett
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C-home Fairness for motorists

The Chancellor's Autumn Statement yesterday contained a big boost for motorists: another cancellation of a planned rise in fuel tax. This is the third time the Chancellor has postponed one of Labour's tax rises: to persuade a Chancellor not to collect a tax that, in his mind, would be worth £1billion a year for the Treasury, is something - to do it thrice is very special indeed. And it seems likely that fuel duty will be frozen for the rest of this parliament. James Forsyth notes that to freeze it would only cost £1bn, which an election-minded Osborne is likely to see as a price well worth paying to keep thousands of strivers on board.

Much of the credit for the postponement goes to Robert Halfon, probably the best campaigning MP in Parliament today, and his energetic efforts to stop the fuel duty have played a very large part in preventing a rise. Halfon represents the archetypal swing seat, Harlow, and works hard to represent the concerns of Essex Man in parliament. Indeed, when responding to the Chancellor's Autumn Statement yesterday, Mr Halfon said: "the Chancellor has put fuel in the tank of White Van Conservatives today". A statement released afterwards echoed these sentiments:

"This was a Robin Hood statement. George Osborne has put fuel in the tank of the British economy. He has not just delayed Labour's 3p petrol tax, but scrapped it altogether. This will save an ordinary motorist in my constituency of Harlow around £80 next year. When families are hard-pressed, the Government should do everything to keep the cost of living down. That's why I am delighted that the Chancellor has listened, and frozen fuel duty again."

Halfon's campaigning success on the fuel duty increase could be put down to four factors.

Firstly: good use of the internet and campaigning websites. Halfon set up an e-petition website, PetrolPromise.com, using technology from the Right Angle campaign. This allowed nearly 100 backbench Conservative MPs to hear directly from their constituents on high fuel prices, many of whom specifically asked their MP to support the campaign for lower fuel duty. This campaign was supported by active use of Twitter, Facebook, and Google advertising. His initial campaign against the tax, last year, used the Government's e-petition website, and was one of the first petitions to receive 100,000 signatures.

Secondly: building alliances. Halfon continued his alliances from his last campaign to keep the tax at bay. He worked closely with like-minded campaigning groups and publications supportive of his position. These include Conservative Voice; FairFuelUK; groups representing the motor industry; and the main newspapers of the right: the Sun, Daily Express, Daily Mail, and the Daily Telegraph.

Thirdly: parliamentary mechanisms. Halfon asked many oral and written parliamentary questions about fuel prices and their impact on low-income Britons. He tabled Early Day Motions; called for backbench debates, and - perhaps most importantly - took a big delegation of more than 20 backbench Conservatives to meet Treasury Ministers in private. Notably, despite such a large meeting, no details of the meeting were leaked to the press. Halfon also regularly lobbied Ministers in private.

Finally: he kept the Government onside. When Ed Balls attempted to split the Conservative benches on fuel tax, Halfon didn't rebel, and, in fact, asked other backbenchers to vote with the Government motion. Rather than be confrontational with the Government, he stayed loyal and negotiated behind the scenes.

It's worth bearing in mind why stopping the fuel duty was so vital. Last month, my colleague Peter Hoskin noted figures from the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, who said that the rise in fuel duty would have reduced our GDP growth and cost 35,000 jobs. It would have impacted disproportionately upon small businesses and the self-employed - surely the bedrock of any Conservative majority.

Mr Halfon fought hard for his seat - he was the candidate for Harlow in 2001 and 2005 before winning in 2010. He is a wise and, obviously, effective campaigner, with an understanding of modern campaigning methods. He has taken positions that challenge conventional wisdom and mainstream orthodoxy - his excellent pamphlet "Stop the union-bashing: why Conservatives should embrace the trade union movement" is an example of this. Robert Halfon is one of the best assets the parliamentary Conservative party currently has, and it is safe to say that many families would have found the current climate a bit tougher had he not succeeded yesterday.


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