The phantom apology: Maude retracts jerry can advice

Francis Maude was wrong to encourage motorists to fill jerry cans with fuel in case of a strike, a transport minister admitted last night.

Speaking to Newsnight, Mike Penning said Mr Maude had apologised for the comment, although there are no records of him doing so.

"You can't store that amount of petrol. It was a mistake by the Cabinet minister," he said.

"He didn't understand the size of a jerry can. He has apologised since."

Mr Maude came under severe criticism yesterday when he told TV viewers that "a bit of petrol in a jerry can in the garage is a sensible precaution to take".

The Fire Brigades Union said that keeping petrol in the home was "not sensible" and that the amount of fuel Mr Maude was discussing would be illegal.

Critics also accused the Cabinet minister of stoking panic in a bid to drag the political debate away from last week's badly-received Budget, with some warning he could have sparked panic buying at petrol forecourts across the country as a result of his comments.

“The prime minister is presiding over a shambles on petrol," Labour leader Ed Miliband said.

“The country is paying the price for the incompetent way he is governing.

“In a delicate situation which demanded statesmanship the government showed partisanship.

"They made a crude decision to play politics with petrol without regard for the consequence."

The industrial dispute is currently set to go to Acas, the reconciliation service. Unite the union is demanding minimum standards for pay, hours, holiday and redundancy for fuel tanker drivers.

Union drivers voted to strike but no date has been set for the action and critics say the government is deliberately stoking the fires of confrontation for political reasons.

Following a meeting of the Cobra emergency committee yesterday, a Downing Street spokesperson said: "The meeting reiterated that this is an industrial dispute and that there is no justification for a strike. Unite and employers need to work together to reach an agreement that will avert the irresponsible industrial action that threatens the nation with economic and social disruption.

"No one wants a strike and no date has been set for one. However, the government does have to prepare for the possibility that there will be a strike."