Jim Armitage: A slip of the pen? So easy to give the wrong impression


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Outlook Michael Howard (Lord Howard of Lympne to you) was always a doughty defender of his actions when in government. And no less so now he’s in business.

Indeed, he has come out fighting over criticism of how his Soma Oil and Gas has gone about its dealings with one of the ministers in the party he used to lead.

Soma was set up in 2013 to explore for oil in Somalia after the decades-long conflict there. Lord Howard became its chairman last May. He sits on a board alongside the Conservative donor Basil Shiblaq and a former Tory special adviser, the Earl of Clanwilliam.

Much has already been written about Soma’s controversial contract to carry out seismic testing in the country, before the UN called for a moratorium on new oil deals in Somalia.

But there’s a noteworthy issue as well in part of the official correspondence that has emerged lately.

It involves the wording of a letter obtained by the Wall Street Journal, sent by Lord Howard to Michael Fallon, then a minister at the Department for Business.

The letter asks Mr Fallon to meet with Somalia’s minister for energy when he comes to London “to discuss the challenges of developing a hydrocarbon regime”. I don’t have a problem with that, but what is perhaps more concerning is how Lord Howard begins his letter, before seeking to persuade Mr Fallon to arrange the meeting.

“Dear Michael” he writes. “I’m afraid another request for a favour. I am Chairman of Soma Oil and Gas Limited, an appointment I accepted with the encouragement of the FCO.”

The phrasing there surely risks giving the impression that Lord Howard’s appointment to the post was as a result of some form of “encouragement” of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. And, following on from that, the inference that could conceivably be taken is that the FCO is “on side” with Soma, and so, therefore, should be the Department for Business.

The FCO is rather quick to state that it made absolutely no such encouragement, and never would. While it gave Soma a “security briefing and political update”, a spokesman said: “We are not involved in the recruitment processes of individuals or companies.”

Lord Howard’s and Soma’s position is that my interpretation of the letter is entirely mistaken. Of course he didn’t mean the FCO had encouraged him to accept the appointment. What the phrase meant was that he had met with the Foreign Office for a briefing on the government’s policy towards Somalia and that this meeting had reassured him Britain and Soma’s aims were at one. Therefore, he felt encouraged in himself to take the job.

Perhaps he should have made that plainer in his letter, because now the NGO Global Witness is demanding full disclosure, stating: “The idea that the Foreign Office encouraged Michael Howard to join Soma Oil and Gas is extremely concerning and something that we need to know the truth about.”

What a lot of trouble Lord Howard could have saved himself had he been a little more careful in his words.