Five years ago this week, George Osborne as chancellor announced a scheme to place tax revenues from shale gas fracking in Lancashire and Cheshire into a ‘sovereign wealth fund for the north of England’. Soon after that, a leaked memo revealed him urging fellow ministers to intervene with planning authorities to fast-track fracking proposals and in particular to help Cuadrilla, the company whose drilling near Blackpool caused a seismic tremor in August big enough to give the current government reason to impose a moratorium on fracking ‘until and unless’ it’s judged completely safe.
Jeremy Corbyn probably isn’t wrong when he calls this ban ‘an electoral stunt’. But it comes as no surprise to anyone who has observed the absence of coherent energy policy in Downing Street since Osborne last cracked the whip. The truth is that the fracking debate was lost long ago, not because science proved the technique toxic but because objectors maintained their fervour and renewables raised their claims to viability while ministers ducked. Industrial earthshaking beneath rural English homes was never remotely comparable, in political terms, to the wilderness fracking that has transformed America’s energy economy.
The ban is ‘temporary’, but I bet it turns out to be permanent. If so, many of us who have tired of the underlying arguments will breathe a sigh of relief. But the other truth is that the UK will continue for many years to depend on insecure supplies of imported gas, plus fluctuating windpower, while we live in hope that the Hinkley Point nuclear project doesn’t stall; that non--fracking onshore gas finds such as Rathlin Energy’s in East Yorkshire can still be exploited while we wait for other renewables to scale up; and that our lights never go out.
So farewell — at least in this country — to Mothercare, a trusted and familiar retail brand that, like so many others, has fallen victim to the pricing power of online sellers and supermarket giants. Shrunken from almost 400 UK stores a decade ago to just 79 today, it has failed to find a buyer and called in administrators, putting 2,500 jobs at risk.
If it now disappears from our high streets it takes with it a colourful nugget of history: for the founders of Mothercare were not, as you might guess, a couple of enterprising mums in search of better babywear, but the ruthless Anglo-French tycoon Jimmy Goldsmith and his Baghdad-born banker friend Selim Zilkha. Not long after the birth of his first son, Goldsmith bought (from the property magnate Charles Clore) a chain of 28 traditional chemist shops called Lewis & Burrows and persuaded Zilkha to partner with him in converting them to a new mother--and-baby format. Goldsmith sold out in 1962 to Zilkha, who sold out in 1981 — but the Mothercare brand lives on today in the shopping malls of Russia, Ukraine and Pakistan. How strange is corporate fate?
I was off the invitation list for this year’s Future Investment Initiative, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s annual jamboree in Riyadh that has become known as ‘Davos in the Desert’. But my man behind the fruit juice stall reports delegates having ‘a fantastic time’ discussing ‘what’s next for global business’ as though last year’s murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the bombing of Yemen — not to mention the 2017 incarceration of hundreds of senior Saudis in the conference hotel, the Ritz Carlton — had never happened.
This restoration of international obsequiousness as usual at the court of the autocratic young Crown Prince is confirmed by news that Aramco, the giant Saudi state oil company, is at last about to launch the much-delayed IPO that will allow it, says the FT, to ‘play a central role in MBS’s plans to modernise the kingdom’. JP Morgan, Goldman Sachs and Citigroup are among a distinguished roll call of advisers for the expected flotation of up to 3 per cent of Aramco’s shares on Riyadh’s own Tadawul stock exchange; the prospect of listing on London or New York exchanges remains ‘on ice’, not least because Aramco is unlikely or unwilling to meet the relevant governance requirements.
But what matters most for MBS’s pride is the market valuation of Aramco, which he hopes to see close to $2 trillion though analysts (concerned about the security of Saudi oil sites following the September drone attack at Abqaiq, as well as the risks of state interference) have talked of much less. Either way, international institutions are highly likely to end up holding Aramco shares and we may all have a little piece of them through pension funds and investment products; but that’s no reason to forget the nature of the regime that sold them.
Green, red or blue?
My restaurant tip for this week, from Filey on the breezy North Yorkshire coast, is the White Lodge Hotel, which offers fine traditional Sunday lunches and has just hosted a supper theatre production of David Tristram’s satirical tragicomedy Going Green — in which I played Sir Clive, the ‘head of national security’. The play’s premise is that a would-be leader of the Green party, John Brown, contracts a fatal disease for which the only antidote is a bioluminescent fungus that literally turns him green and makes him glow in the dark. But he takes electoral advantage under the slogan ‘Go green… or die’, wins a landslide and (before the disease finally claims him) persuades fellow world leaders to help him save the planet.
A green prime minister? How ridiculous is that? Less so than the deepest-red one we could get in December, with a manifesto for economic destruction on a Venezuelan scale, if crucial seats are denied to Boris by a Farage-Remainer squeeze. A what? As we live through a political satire more bizarre than any playwright could invent, lunch remains the best consolation.