Ministers are gearing up for a major showdown with workers over the oil tanker drivers' upcoming strike and are planning to bring in scab labour.
In a move echoing the dark days of Thatcher and the great miners' strike in the 1980s, a Cabinet subcommittee has been set up almost as a council of war.
Members of drivers' union Unite have overwhelmingly backed industrial action which could shut thousands of petrol stations if strikes go ahead.
Around 2,000 workers at seven companies were balloted for the first national campaign of action for over a decade in a dispute over workers' terms, conditions and safety.
Unite drivers supply fuel to 90 per cent of Britain's forecourts and the union said a strike could close up to 7,900 petrol stations.
Downing Street refused to be drawn on details on Tuesday but it is understood that army drivers are being put through an eight-day training course to act as scab labour.
A spokeswoman stressed there may not be enough military personnel to replace striking drivers.
But, when asked how the government was going to get extra drivers, she said: "It is something we are looking at."
Unite national officer Matt Draper shot back: "It is vital the government does not mislead people, which is why we're asking them to make it expressly clear how many drivers they have and what training they have had."
Details about the subcommittee were thin on the ground but No 10 admitted it had been set up and met on Tuesday, when there was also a Cabinet meeting.
Sources said the Cabinet was dominated by talk about the proposed strikes, though Unite has pledged to keep the emergency services topped up.
It is understood that military personnel with HGV licences are being trained to take the place of striking drivers behind the wheels of commercial tankers.
The government's spokeswoman said it was sending a "strong message" to both sides to get back round the table and discuss the issue.
The union said strikes were supported by an average of 69 per cent of workers at the five firms where workers backed walkouts, which deliver fuel to Shell and Esso garages as well as supermarkets such as Tesco and Sainsbury's.
Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude said the government had "learnt the lessons" of the previous disruption to petrol supplies in 2000, when pumps ran dry around the country.
Labour leader Ed Miliband said a strike should be avoided "at all costs" and urged workers and bosses to talk the problem out - though Unite's previous attempts to do so have been scuppered by the stubborn privateers.
The union has urged Energy Secretary Ed Davey to intervene.
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