Cameron faces 'anti-British' row over BP

By Reeta Chakrabarti
Political correspondent, BBC News

  • Published
Daily Mail front page
Image caption,
David Cameron is facing calls from some newspapers to take action

The pressure on David Cameron over the BP oil spill may not be as intense as it is on his American counterpart.

But when he speaks to Barack Obama this weekend, in a scheduled phone call, the prime minister will be acutely aware of the growing clamour for him to speak up for Britain.

Several newspapers, a former Conservative party chairman, Lord Tebbit, and the present Conservative London mayor, Boris Johnson, are all up in arms at the perceived Britain-bashing by the US president.

Headlines such as the Daily Mail's "Stand Up For Your Country, Mr Cameron" and its allegations of "cynical" attacks by Mr Obama on Britain's "flagship company" capture the mood in sections of the British press and Tory party.

Mr Obama's pithy pledge of finding ass to kick over the environmental disaster, and his pointed references to "British Petroleum", a corporate identity BP has not used in years, have undoubtedly fuelled the impression of deliberate anti-British rhetoric.

But as well as the supposed hurt to British feelings, there is also the more material fear that talking the oil giant down will harm its plunging share price still further, exposing British pension funds with investments in the company to potentially serious losses.

The British government has tried its best to play the affair with a straight bat so far.

'Tit for tat'

Downing Street's approach has been to try to bypass questions about the tone of comments emanating from the White House, and instead to focus on the practical problems of clean-up.

David Cameron's absence in Afghanistan has meant senior colleagues such as Chancellor George Osborne, Foreign Secretary William Hague and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg have had the job of walking the tightrope of appeasing injured British feelings but not falling out with the Americans.

Mr Clegg, speaking on a visit to Madrid, said no practical solution to the oil spill could be found in allowing the affair to "spiral into a tit for tat" row.

Mr Hague said on Thursday there was no evidence of an anti-British tone in anything he had heard, and that dealing with the practical problems of the oil spill was more important than rhetoric that "any of us may indulge in about it".

This was a neat way of not denying there may have been anti-British rhetoric, but dismissing it as trivial.

Mr Osborne has been deputed to talk to the beleaguered chief executive of BP, Tony Hayward, on behalf of David Cameron - and Downing Street says the Department of Energy stands ready to offer technical assistance to BP, while stressing the spill is BP's problem to sort out.

Ultimately, the relationship with Washington is of utmost importance to the British government, and the tone from Downing Street has consistently been an emollient one of "we feel America's pain" without letting anything become personal.

Whether that can be maintained as the oil continues to spew into the ocean will depend as much on President Obama as on David Cameron.

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