Barack Obama knows language and innuendo: he will know what he’s doing by deploying what Boris Johnson rightly calls “anti-British rhetoric” in the BP disaster. BP has not – for many years – stood for British Petroleum’ – you won’t find the two words anywhere in its annual report. But you hear them plenty tripping off the presidential tongue, as if to point the finger on the other side of the Atlantic. It makes you wonder how highly he values UK-US relations: Bush was genuinely grateful for the fact that Britain was America’s most dependable ally in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s hard to imagine Bush using the rhetoric that Obama has so quickly resorted to. It does make you wonder: is there still a “special relationship” or is America just not that into us?
When Piper Alpha exploded in 1988 and killed 162 in the North Sea, no one in Britain spoke suggestively about an American company. Where the parent company is domiciled does not matter: you get British companies whose share capital can be owned by various people. BP is 40% owned by British shareholders and 39 perccent owned by American ones: its board has six Americans and six Brits. This disaster happened on an American-owned, Korean-built rig leased by BP’s American subsidiary. But to listen to Obama, it is as if a few blokes from Stoke-on-Trent sailed over, and drilled a wildcat well – then buggered off and left Uncle Sam to suffer all the damage.
Transocean, the owner of the destroyed Deepwater Horizon rig, relocated for tax reasons first to the Cayman Islands and then to Switzerland. But blaming the Swiss would not quite have the same political effect in America. Halliburton, the controversial Texan firm once chaired by Cheney, had a hand in the ‘cementing’ processes that failed to protect the rig against explosion.
There is fault everywhere in this disaster. Doubtless it deflects anger from Obama and other senior American politicians to ramp up anti-British sentiment – when you consider the appalling performance of BP’s chief executive, and Fergie on Oprah, there is reason to believe that Britain’s reputation in America stands at its lowest ebb since 1776. This has a tangible effect. As Allister Heath argues in City AM today, British companies are reporting that it’s harder to do business over there. Obama is talking about stopping BP dividends – £1 in every £6 paid in dividends in Britain comes from BP. To damage BP's dividend payment scheme is to damage British pensioners: you can't just hit a 'company' without hitting either its customers, or its investors (in this case, several million British pension savers).
David Cameron’s mission will be to stop this escalating. He could respond by saying that, if we’re going to play the compensation game, then we might ask why American banks sold worthless CDOs to RBS with a cost of billions to the British taxpayer. But I suspect he will use back channels to tell Obama to start calling BP by its name, and drop the anti-British rhetoric because it has a tangible impact on UK-US relations. The question is how much Obama cares about those relations. I suspect we’ll soon see.