British businessmen and politicians have voiced concern in recent days over the aggressive rhetoric deployed by the Obama Administration toward oil company BP. Under pressure from his own party, the president’s words have become evermore bellicose as the United Kingdom-based corporation proved unable to put a stop to the oil spill currently wreaking havoc in the Gulf of Mexico.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi turned up the heat on Thursday, demanding that BP compensate victims of the disaster before awarding a shareholder dividend. BP stock has plummeted since April, losing almost half of its value.
The concerns of British business come amid growing suspicion in the United Kingdom that attacks on BP for its handling of the oil spill are being dictated by the politics of November’s midterm elections rather than regulatory considerations. The president’s party is set to lose significantly in both houses of Congress. Republicans have fiercely attacked the administration for how it has managed the crisis in the Gulf so far.
Repeated references by senior American politicians to “British Petroleum” — which has not been the company’s name since 1998 — have fueled fears of a wider backlash against British companies. The Financial Times quotes Miles Templeman, director-general of the United Kingdom’s Institute of Directors, as warning that “there will be a prejudice against British companies” because of this political bombast.
Richard Lambert, director-general of the CBI, the British employers’ group, shares his concern. The White House’s strategy, according to Lambert, is misplaced. “Apart from anything else, BP is a vital part of the American energy infrastructure. So America has an interest in the welfare of BP, as much as the rest of the world does.”
The discord has reached the highest levels of government with David Cameron’s office promising on Thursday that the British prime minister would would discuss the oil spill with his American counterpart over the weekend. Politico reports that Cameron is under pressure from British investors and Conservative Party allies to get Obama to tone down the rhetoric.
Cameron, in Afghanistan, said he understood the administration’s frustration. “The most important thing is to try to mitigate the effects and get to grips with the problem,” he said. London’s Conservative mayor Boris Johnson was rather less diplomatic. He told the BBC that he was concerned about the “anti-British rhetoric that seems to be permeating from America.”
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs rejected suggestions that American criticism has damaged BP. “The criticism that somehow we’ve been too harsh, I don’t think that matches up with the reality or the rhetoric we’ve used,” he said.
BP Chief Executive Tony Hayward is expected to face a grilling next week at the latest in a series of congressional hearings investigating the company’s role in the spill. Meanwhile, the Justice Department is pursuing a criminal investigation of the company — something that could well have global repercussions for BP.