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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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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