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.

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Why Theresa May won't exclude students from the net migration target

The Prime Minister believes the public would view the move as "a fix". 

In a letter to David Cameron shortly after the last general election, Philip Hammond demanded that students be excluded from the net migration target. The then foreign secretary, who was backed by George Osborne and Sajid Javid, wrote: "From a foreign policy point of view, Britain's role as a world class destination for international students is a highly significant element of our soft power offer. It's an issue that's consistently raised with me by our foreign counterparts." Universities and businesses have long argued that it is economically harmful to limit student numbers. But David Cameron, supported by Theresa May, refused to relent. 

Appearing before the Treasury select committee yesterday, Hammond reignited the issue. "As we approach the challenge of getting net migration figures down, it is in my view essential that we look at how we do this in a way that protects the vital interests of our economy," he said. He added that "It's not whether politicians think one thing or another, it's what the public believe and I think it would be useful to explore that quesrtion." A YouGov poll published earlier this year found that 57 per cent of the public support excluding students from the "tens of thousands" target.

Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, has also pressured May to do so. But the Prime Minister not only rejected the proposal - she demanded a stricter regime. Rudd later announced in her conference speech that there would be "tougher rules for students on lower quality courses". 

The economic case for reform is that students aid growth. The political case is that it would make the net migration target (which has been missed for six years) easier to meet (long-term immigration for study was 164,000 in the most recent period). But in May's view, excluding students from the target would be regarded by the public as a "fix" and would harm the drive to reduce numbers. If an exemption is made for one group, others will inevitably demand similar treatment. 

Universities complain that their lobbying power has been reduced by the decision to transfer ministerial responsibility from the business department to education. Bill Rammell, the former higher education minister and the vice-chancellor of Bedfordshire, said in July: “We shouldn’t assume that Theresa May as prime minister will have the same restrictive view on overseas students that Theresa May the home secretary had”. Some Tory MPs hoped that the net migration target would be abolished altogether in a "Nixon goes to China" moment.

But rather than retreating, May has doubled-down. The Prime Minister regards permanently reduced migration as essential to her vision of a more ordered society. She believes the economic benefits of high immigration are both too negligible and too narrow. 

Her ambition is a forbidding one. Net migration has not been in the "tens of thousands" since 1997: when the EU had just 15 member states and the term "BRICS" had not even been coined. But as prime minister, May is determined to achieve what she could not as home secretary. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.