Vince Cable, Shell and his defenders in the press

Martin Waller gets it wrong

I have dissected the so-called "cult of Cable" in this week's magazine. Having been suitably briefed by Vince's people, Martin Waller, City diarist for the Times, calls my piece an "astonishing hatchet job" on the Lib Dems' "Shadow Chancellor":

The honeymoon is over for Vince Cable, Lib Dem Shadow Chancellor. An astonishing hatchet job appears in this week's New Statesman, in effect accusing him of complicity in the killing by the Nigerian Government of nine protesters from the Ogoni people in the south of the country in 1995, when he became chief economist at Shell.

Nowhere do I make such a claim - although I do quote campaigners and activists, who know more about the Shell scandal than Waller or I do, pointing out that Saint Vince, in his role as chief economist of Shell International, could not have been unaware of the alleged links between Shell Nigeria and the Sani Abacha military government and cannot now claim ignorance. My chief complaint relates to Cable's shameful silence on the killing of writer Ken Saro-Wiwa, and eight other Ogoni protesters, in southern Nigeria in which Shell is alleged to have been complicit. Why has he never spoken out on this? The question still stands.

Waller continues:

Cable's office is relaxed -- "part and parcel of the rough and tumble of Westminster politics". They did point out to the writer that Cable only got involved with Nigeria a year after the executions, as part of the clear-up of the affair -- a fact that somehow failed to make it into the piece.

First, I am not a politician so I am not quite sure how my piece is part of "the rough and tumble of Westminster politics". Second, Waller, as an experienced hack, knows very well that rights of reply are often edited for reasons of space before their inclusion in a piece - there is no need for sinister or conspiratorial inferences ("a fact that somehow failed to make it into the piece"). Third, it is ludicrous to claim that "Cable only got involved with Nigeria a year after the executions" (and, in any case, how does that absolve him of any role that Shell may or may not have played?).Here is what Cable's people told me (and, in hindsight, I wish I'd had space to include it in full):

In 1996, Dr Cable contributed to a scenario planning exercise to help Shell Group and the Nigerian company decide their strategy and presented the results of the scenario planning at a summit in Abuja.

That doesn't sound like a "clear-up of the affair" - it sounds like Cable helping his employers to make more money out of its Nigeria operation despite the "affair" (Waller's euphemism for the killings). Finally, it is worth pointing out that Vince Cable's people were keen to avoid providing any detailed information to the New Statesman on his time at Shell - or his comments on the company since leaving in 1997. I asked for evidence that he had spoken out against Shell in the past - they cited a BBC Newsnight interview from 1997, without providing any quotes and asking me to go the BBC (!) to "source" the original interview. I also asked for the exact date on which Shell took his post as chief economist at Shell in 1995 - was it before or after 5 November 1995, the date on which Ken Saro-Wiwa was executed? Vince's press spokeswoman told me to "contact Shell who should be able to give you an exact date". Bizarre. Had he forgotten, I wondered, when exactly he had been appointed to the biggest job of his life? Is it credible to believe that could be the case?

Cable has questions to answer. And Waller, who specialises in fawning profiles of City slickers, now seems to have fallen in love with politicians and their PRs too. Shame.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

Getty.
Show Hide image

The Brexit Beartraps, #2: Could dropping out of the open skies agreement cancel your holiday?

Flying to Europe is about to get a lot more difficult.

So what is it this time, eh? Brexit is going to wipe out every banana planet on the entire planet? Brexit will get the Last Night of the Proms cancelled? Brexit will bring about World War Three?

To be honest, I think we’re pretty well covered already on that last score, but no, this week it’s nothing so terrifying. It’s just that Brexit might get your holiday cancelled.

What are you blithering about now?

Well, only if you want to holiday in Europe, I suppose. If you’re going to Blackpool you’ll be fine. Or Pakistan, according to some people...

You’re making this up.

I’m honestly not, though we can’t entirely rule out the possibility somebody is. Last month Michael O’Leary, the Ryanair boss who attracts headlines the way certain other things attract flies, warned that, “There is a real prospect... that there are going to be no flights between the UK and Europe for a period of weeks, months beyond March 2019... We will be cancelling people’s holidays for summer of 2019.”

He’s just trying to block Brexit, the bloody saboteur.

Well, yes, he’s been quite explicit about that, and says we should just ignore the referendum result. Honestly, he’s so Remainiac he makes me look like Dan Hannan.

But he’s not wrong that there are issues: please fasten your seatbelt, and brace yourself for some turbulence.

Not so long ago, aviation was a very national sort of a business: many of the big airports were owned by nation states, and the airline industry was dominated by the state-backed national flag carriers (British Airways, Air France and so on). Since governments set airline regulations too, that meant those airlines were given all sorts of competitive advantages in their own country, and pretty much everyone faced barriers to entry in others. 

The EU changed all that. Since 1994, the European Single Aviation Market (ESAM) has allowed free movement of people and cargo; established common rules over safety, security, the environment and so on; and ensured fair competition between European airlines. It also means that an AOC – an Air Operator Certificate, the bit of paper an airline needs to fly – from any European country would be enough to operate in all of them. 

Do we really need all these acronyms?

No, alas, we need more of them. There’s also ECAA, the European Common Aviation Area – that’s the area ESAM covers; basically, ESAM is the aviation bit of the single market, and ECAA the aviation bit of the European Economic Area, or EEA. Then there’s ESAA, the European Aviation Safety Agency, which regulates, well, you can probably guess what it regulates to be honest.

All this may sound a bit dry-

It is.

-it is a bit dry, yes. But it’s also the thing that made it much easier to travel around Europe. It made the European aviation industry much more competitive, which is where the whole cheap flights thing came from.

In a speech last December, Andrew Haines, the boss of Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority said that, since 2000, the number of destinations served from UK airports has doubled; since 1993, fares have dropped by a third. Which is brilliant.

Brexit, though, means we’re probably going to have to pull out of these arrangements.

Stop talking Britain down.

Don’t tell me, tell Brexit secretary David Davis. To monitor and enforce all these international agreements, you need an international court system. That’s the European Court of Justice, which ministers have repeatedly made clear that we’re leaving.

So: last March, when Davis was asked by a select committee whether the open skies system would persist, he replied: “One would presume that would not apply to us” – although he promised he’d fight for a successor, which is very reassuring. 

We can always holiday elsewhere. 

Perhaps you can – O’Leary also claimed (I’m still not making this up) that a senior Brexit minister had told him that lost European airline traffic could be made up for through a bilateral agreement with Pakistan. Which seems a bit optimistic to me, but what do I know.

Intercontinental flights are still likely to be more difficult, though. Since 2007, flights between Europe and the US have operated under a separate open skies agreement, and leaving the EU means we’re we’re about to fall out of that, too.  

Surely we’ll just revert to whatever rules there were before.

Apparently not. Airlines for America – a trade body for... well, you can probably guess that, too – has pointed out that, if we do, there are no historic rules to fall back on: there’s no aviation equivalent of the WTO.

The claim that flights are going to just stop is definitely a worst case scenario: in practice, we can probably negotiate a bunch of new agreements. But we’re already negotiating a lot of other things, and we’re on a deadline, so we’re tight for time.

In fact, we’re really tight for time. Airlines for America has also argued that – because so many tickets are sold a year or more in advance – airlines really need a new deal in place by March 2018, if they’re to have faith they can keep flying. So it’s asking for aviation to be prioritised in negotiations.

The only problem is, we can’t negotiate anything else until the EU decides we’ve made enough progress on the divorce bill and the rights of EU nationals. And the clock’s ticking.

This is just remoaning. Brexit will set us free.

A little bit, maybe. CAA’s Haines has also said he believes “talk of significant retrenchment is very much over-stated, and Brexit offers potential opportunities in other areas”. Falling out of Europe means falling out of European ownership rules, so itcould bring foreign capital into the UK aviation industry (assuming anyone still wants to invest, of course). It would also mean more flexibility on “slot rules”, by which airports have to hand out landing times, and which are I gather a source of some contention at the moment.

But Haines also pointed out that the UK has been one of the most influential contributors to European aviation regulations: leaving the European system will mean we lose that influence. And let’s not forget that it was European law that gave passengers the right to redress when things go wrong: if you’ve ever had a refund after long delays, you’ve got the EU to thank.

So: the planes may not stop flying. But the UK will have less influence over the future of aviation; passengers might have fewer consumer rights; and while it’s not clear that Brexit will mean vastly fewer flights, it’s hard to see how it will mean more, so between that and the slide in sterling, prices are likely to rise, too.

It’s not that Brexit is inevitably going to mean disaster. It’s just that it’ll take a lot of effort for very little obvious reward. Which is becoming something of a theme.

Still, we’ll be free of those bureaucrats at the ECJ, won’t be?

This’ll be a great comfort when we’re all holidaying in Grimsby.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.