While it’s definitely not a diplomatic incident, and of course Americans don’t just think of BP as a British company, the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has the British media transfixed.
The Daily Mail has in recent days cranked up the anti-American sentiment, lambasting what it calls “Obama’s inflammatory rhetoric,” and contrasting it with the rather muted response so far from Prime Minister David Cameron and foreign secretary William Hague.
“When disaster strikes, the U.S. will NEVER take the blame,” rages Michael Hanlon, the Mail’s science correspondent and erstwhile climate change denier. According to Hanlon, the U.S. walked away from Bhopal, defended Exxon rather than its own citizens in Alaska, and tried to get away with paying Britain a mere $50 in the wake of the 1966 Torrey Canyon oil spill. We, meanwhile, kept the upper lip stiff when the U.S.-owned Piper Alpha rig burned down off Aberdeen in 1988, killing 150 Brits and taking out 10 percent of North Sea oil production.
Stirring stuff. But as comedian Bill Bailey pointed out recently, “when you read an article in the Daily Mail and think, ‘They’ve got a bloody good point’, your life is effectively over and you should give up immediately.”
Our politicians have also been reluctant to take this populist bait. Until today, the only high profile Tory willing to stick his boot in was Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, a man well known for flying off the handle. In this case, Johnson suggested that it’s a matter of national concern “if a great U.K. company is being continually beaten up on the international airwaves.”
British business leaders have also joined the fray, calling for Cameron to be more forthright in backing BP. In an open letter to Obama, John Napier, CEO of British financial services giant Royal Sun Alliance, went further, suggesting that Cameron’s “double standards” along with anti-British rhetoric are fueling the collapse of BP’s share price. Given that BP stock hit a 13-year low yesterday, Napier may have a point; though, to be fair, the markets may also be reacting to the unpleasant fact that BP will be picking up a very large tab for the worst environmental disaster the U.S. has ever seen.
So, I’m afraid it’s not anything as important as the health of the Gulf’s fisheries, wildlife, or residents that is now dominating the debate here. The more pressing question for the average Brit is whether BP will pay a dividend, and if not, what impact that decision will have on U.K. pension funds.
“Obama’s boot on the throat of British Pensioners,” raged the Telegraph on Thursday, a theme taken up Friday by the Daily Express with their nicely balanced headline: “Barack Obama is killing all our pensions.”
In fact, BP dividends account for a significant portion of the pension plans of 18 million Brits, so this concern is justified. A Guardian poll found that 56 percent of respondees want the dividend paid, and in the accompanying debate commentators Dan Roberts and Nils Pratley argued for and against payment, focusing on how BP can best manage the political fallout, avoid the most ‘wacky’ financial demands of U.S. politicians, and pay dividends eventually.
One fascinating sub plot in this shifting story is the tragic figure of Tony Hayward, a kind of replacement fall guy now that Gordon Brown has left the stage. Once an ‘affable geologist,’ Hayward is now the man who can do no right. It’s all the more ironic since Hayward was brought into the ditch by all that ‘Beyond Petroleum’ green whimsy of his predecessor, Lord Browne, and instead focused on technical excellence and safety. In apparently failing to achieve the latter, Hayward has lost any ground BP might have gained by positioning itself as a friend of the environment.
No one here is calling for Hayward’s head yet, not publicly anyway. But the bookmakers Paddy Power have now cut the odds of Hayward resigning this year to ½ — from Tuesday’s 5/6 line. “You know your luck is definitely out,” said Paddy Power, “when the president of the U.S. reckons you should be fired.”
Where all this goes next is anyone’s guess. But the tide may be turning, slightly, for BP. Cameron is due to phone Obama this weekend and perhaps ask him nicely to ease off. I wonder if he’ll make the call before or after football (the U.S. meets England in a World Cup match on Saturday).
Either way, given that BP has an equal number of shareholders and employees on both sides of the Atlantic, forcing the oil giant into failure seems ultimately to be in the interests only of its rivals — with Exxon the most likely buyer of the remnants. That’s a thought to make an environmentalist on either side of the Atlantic shudder.