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 Clive Lewis was furious when a Trident pledge went missing from his speech

The shadow defence secretary is carving out his own line on security. 

Clive Lewis’s first conference speech as shadow defence secretary has been overshadowed by a row over a last-minute change to his speech, when a section saying that he “would not seek to change” Labour’s policy on renewing Trident submarines disappeared.

Lewis took the stage expecting to make the announcement and was only notified of the change via a post-it note, having reportedly signed it of with the leader’s office in advance. 

Lewis was, I’m told, “fucking furious”, and according to Kevin Schofield over at PoliticsHome, is said to have “punched a wall” in anger at the change. The finger of blame is being pointed at Jeremy Corbyn’s press chief, Seumas Milne.

What’s going on? The important political context is the finely-balanced struggle for power on Labour’s ruling national executive committee, which has tilted away from Corbyn after conference passed a resolution to give the leaders of the Welsh and Scottish parties the right to appoint a representative each to the body. (Corbyn, as leader, has the right to appoint three.)  

One of Corbyn’s more resolvable headaches on the NEC is the GMB, who are increasingly willing to challenge  the Labour leader, and who represent many of the people employed making the submarines themselves. An added source of tension in all this is that the GMB and Unite compete with one another for members in the nuclear industry, and that being seen to be the louder defender of their workers’ interests has proved a good recruiting agent for the GMB in recent years. 

Strike a deal with the GMB over Trident, and it could make passing wider changes to the party rulebook through party conference significantly easier. (Not least because the GMB also accounts for a large chunk of the trade union delegates on the conference floor.) 

So what happened? My understanding is that Milne was not freelancing but acting on clear instruction. Although Team Corbyn are well aware a nuclear deal could ease the path for the wider project, they also know that trying to get Corbyn to strike a pose he doesn’t agree with is a self-defeating task. 

“Jeremy’s biggest strength,” a senior ally of his told me, “is that you absolutely cannot get him to say something he doesn’t believe, and without that, he wouldn’t be leader. But it can make it harder for him to be the leader.”

Corbyn is also of the generation – as are John McDonnell and Diane Abbott – for whom going soft on Trident was symptomatic of Neil Kinnock’s rightward turn. Going easy on this issue was always going be nothing doing. 

There are three big winners in all this. The first, of course, are Corbyn’s internal opponents, who will continue to feel the benefits of the GMB’s support. The second is Iain McNicol, formerly of the GMB. While he enjoys the protection of the GMB, there simply isn’t a majority on the NEC to be found to get rid of him. Corbyn’s inner circle have been increasingly certain they cannot remove McNicol and will insead have to go around him, but this confirms it.

But the third big winner is Lewis. In his praise for NATO – dubbing it a “socialist” organisation, a reference to the fact the Attlee government were its co-creators – and in his rebuffed attempt to park the nuclear issue, he is making himeslf the natural home for those in Labour who agree with Corbyn on the economics but fear that on security issues he is dead on arrival with the electorate.  That position probably accounts for at least 40 per cent of the party membership and around 100 MPs. 

If tomorrow’s Labour party belongs to a figure who has remained in the trenches with Corbyn – which, in my view, is why Emily Thornberry remains worth a bet too – then Clive Lewis has done his chances after 2020 no small amount of good. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.