The other oil spill

A firefighter drowns while trying to clean up a spill -- this one in Dalian, China.

While the efforts in the Gulf of Mexico to stem the flow of oil are dominating the world's headlines, another major oil spill is happening off the busy port of Dalian, in China.

China's largest-ever reported oil spill began a week ago when a pipeline operated by the China National Petroleum Company exploded. Details of the incident have predictably been few and far between, but it is thought that the explosion was caused by an injection of desulpheriser into the pipeline after a tanker had finished unloading. The pipeline has since been repaired and has started operating again.

Again, details of quite how much oil was released are not precise, but China Central Television has reported today that an estimated 1,500 tonnes of oil has been spilled, or roughly 400,000 gallons (compared with the 94 million thought to have escaped so far into the Gulf of Mexico).

Officials have warned of a "severe threat" to the coastline and sealife. A clean-up operation has begun, but has been marred by the death of Zhang Liang (above, left), a firefighter who drowned in the oil.

The Associated Press reports that clean-up workers have been using "chopsticks and their bare hands" to remove the oil from beaches. Meanwhile, the agency also reports that state media said 2,000 soldiers, 40 oil-skimming boats and hundreds of fishing boats were helping with the cleanup.

Worse, Greenpeace is reporting that beaches have not been closed and that children are playing in the oil. A spokesperson for Greenpeace China said:

Greenpeace was . . . surprised to see that the beaches have not been closed to visitors and lack any warning signs. As a result, locals and visitors unaware of the extent of the oil spill were playing in the water with their kids, risking exposure to petroleum.

Although the scale of the Gulf spill is so much greater, it is being tackled with professional equipment and armies of volunteers. The response to the Dalian spill suffers from poor co-ordination and equipment, and suggests that the recovery for the fishing and tourism industries in the area is likely to be just as arduous as for the people of Louisiana.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

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Why Theresa May can't end speculation of an early general election

Both Conservative and Labour MPs regard a contest next year as the solution to their problems. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as a Conservative leadership candidate was to rule out an early general election. After a tumultuous 2015 contest and the EU referendum, her view was that the country required a period of stability (a view shared by voters). Many newly-elected Tory MPs, fearful of a Brexit-inspired Ukip or Liberal Democrat surge, supported her on this condition.

After entering Downing Street, May reaffirmed her stance. “The Prime Minister could not have been clearer,” a senior source told me. “There won’t be an early election.” Maintaining this pledge is an important part of May’s straight-talking image.

But though No.10 has wisely avoided publicly contemplating an election (unlike Gordon Brown), the question refuses to die. The Conservatives have a majority of just 12 - the smallest of any single-party government since 1974 - and, as David Cameron found, legislative defeats almost inevitably follow. May’s vow to lift the ban on new grammar schools looks to many like an unachievable task. Former education secretary Nicky Morgan and former business minister Anna Soubry are among the Tories leading the charge against the measure (which did not feature in the 2015 Conservative manifesto).  

To this problem, an early election appears to be the solution. The Tories retain a substantial opinion poll lead over Labour, the most divided opposition in recent history. An election victory would give May the mandate for new policies that she presently lacks.

“I don’t believe Theresa May wishes to hold an early election which there is evidence that the country doesn’t want and which, given the current state of the Labour Party, might be seen as opportunistic,” Nigel Lawson told today’s Times“If, however, the government were to find that it couldn’t get its legislation through the House of Commons, then a wholly new situation would arise.”

It is not only Conservatives who are keeping the possibility of an early election alive. Many Labour MPs are pleading for one in the belief that it would end Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. An early contest would also pre-empt the boundary changes planned in 2018, which are forecast to cost the party 23 seats.

For Corbyn, the possibility of an election is a vital means of disciplining MPs. Allies also hope that the failed revolt against his leadership, which Labour members blame for the party’s unpopularity, would allow him to remain leader even if defeated.

Unlike her predecessors, May faces the obstacle of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act (under which the next election will be on 7 May 2020). Yet it is not an insurmountable one. The legislation can be suspended with the backing of two-thirds of MPs, or through a vote of no confidence in the government. Alternatively, the act could simply be repealed or amended. Labour and the Liberal Democrats, who have demanded an early election, would struggle to resist May if she called their bluff.

To many, it simply looks like an offer too good to refuse. Which is why, however hard May swats this fly, it will keep coming back. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.