Earlier, John Major had angrily attacked the board of Shell as "wimps" for caving in to the combined pressure from the German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, a European consumer boycott and the environment group Greenpeace.
John Jennings, chairman of Shell Transport and Trading plc - the British arm of the Anglo/Dutch parent company - wrote to the Prime Minister yesterday afternoon. His letter, marked urgent, offered the "most sincere apologies for the position in which the outcome of this complex issue placed you and your ministerial colleagues".
But the Government was still threatening retribution by refusing to allow Shell the full tax relief for which it would normally have qualified arising from the extra costs of disposing of the oil platform on land. Tim Eggar, the Minister for Energy, said he had written to Shell saying: "There is no reason at all why the British taxpayer should pick up any of the bill over and above what deep-sea disposal would have cost." Later, Mr Eggar said he wanted Shell to ``volunteer'' not to claim its entitlement to tax relief on the extra cost - about pounds 35m - of breaking up the platform on land compared with sea disposal. "I will be surprised and disappointed if Shell does not say that in all the circumstances they will not seek to make this tax deductible," he said.
The Brent Spar itself was still under tow off the Outer Hebrides last night, heading nowhere in particular according to Shell UK. Most of the Shell flotilla which accompanied it has departed and two tugs remain. Yesterday, Norway made an informal offer to provide a safe anchorage in a deep fiord and Shell began talks.
Mr Major was deeply embarrassed and his authority undermined when he heard about the company's change of heart after facing fierce criticism in the Commons for backing Shell's decision to sink the oil storage buoy 7,000 feet to the bed of the north-east Atlantic. He said the volte-face was "unbelievable".
Shell attributed the change of policy to the pressure from Europe, but Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, underlined fears that the apparent success of Greenpeace's action could encourage more direct action by campaign groups.
Frank Dobson, Labour's environment spokesman, said: "John Major was absolutely humiliated. He was left like the boy standing on the burning deck whence all but he had fled."
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