One thousand comments on the BBC news website by lunchtime is not chicken feed, but neither does it signify there’s a revolution brewing below stairs. It wasn’t even the most commented story that week.
Despite plenty of traffic the subject never made it onto the Twitter trending list, the anti road toll petitions on the Downing Street website were very quiet and the story was soon downgraded on the major news websites (for precisely how it played out see below). By 15:00 it was all over.
You could read too much into this. Today is one of the busiest shopping days of the year. There haven’t been any new revelations to keep the controversy going and the story wasn’t the result of an official announcement, just briefings to the newspapers (not that there have been any denials).
On the other hand, will policy makers be trembling in their boots this weekend? It doesn’t look like a terminal blow to plans which, despite denials about final decisions, develop along consistent lines: no tolls on existing roads, only on those upgraded ‘beyond recognition’, with an industry structure similar to water or energy.
Perhaps the electorate has been persuaded by George Osborne’s apparent desire that tolls will not add to motoring taxes overall. Or that, like the fuel blockades in 2002, the fight has gone out of the argument. Despite some bluster, perhaps the people have accepted the inevitability of road charging.
Or maybe it’s because the spy-in-the-cab fears keenly felt in the original Downing Street petition have been negated by plans to police the new system with number plate recognition cameras.
The Coalition is reportedly split over the options on future road financing thrown up by a joint DfT/ Treasury report. This leak is no doubt a handy way to tip the balance. Final plans are set to be announced in a mid-term coalition review in January.
Public opposition to road tolls is still there, clearly. But a lot has happened since 2007, not least two stellar Olympic performances by the UK cycling team and a population steadily weaned off travel by the recession, record fuel prices and even social media. Is opposition still so overwhelming that it will stop any proposal in its tracks? On current indications, we wouldn’t say so.
UPDATE 23:48 There was a flurry of Twitter messages, mainly against, after the story featured quite high up on the 10 o’clock BBC TV news tonight. But the readers’ comments on the BBC news website are unchanged at 1,464, the same they have been since at least 20:00, and neither the Daily Telegraph or Daily Mail saw significant increases.
READERS’ COMMENTS: The number of reader comments on the news stories about possible road tolls in the Daily Telegraph (DT), Daily Mail (DM) and BBC were noted each hour as the story broke. After an initial flurry, the amount of comments – not by all means all against anyway – quickly fell away:
11:00 DT 634; DM 423; BBC 781
12:00 DT 707; DM 722; BBC 995
13:00 DT 758; DM 798; BBC 1122
14:00 DT 791; DM 859; BBC 1225
15:00 DT 829; DM 900; BBC 1295
16:00 DT 843; DM 940; BBC 1355
20:00 DT 930; DM 1050; BBC 1464
22:25 DT 988; DM 1112; BBC 1464
22:54 DT 988; DM 1112; BBC 1464