Leading article: Hayward is jeopardising more than his job

Click to follow
The Independent Online

David Cameron will be praying that the Gulf oil spill is at least partly under control by the time he meets the US President in Ontario later this month for the G8 and G20 summits. As fervent an Atlanticist as his Labour predecessor as prime minister, he will have been hoping to use the meeting to inject new energy into a faltering US-British relationship, whose "special" quality has looked increasingly questionable since Barack Obama took the White House.

Joint concerns about the euro, the future of the Afghan mission, Iran, Iraq and Israel-Palestine are all subjects about which the two leaders need to confer and align approaches. Unhelpfully, the vast and seemingly ever-growing oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico has since inserted itself as an extra item on the agenda, threatening to crowd out the others and even become a source of discord between the two countries.

Not surprisingly, Mr Cameron has tried to keep well out of the affair, maintaining a cool distance from BP and, unlike the Business Secretary Vince Cable, ignoring the President's bitter tirades against the company. He understands that Mr Obama is braced for a disappointing result in November's mid-term elections and is trying to shed a reputation for aloofness from ordinary people's concerns by sounding an aggressively populist note. Behind the scenes, the Prime Minister will calculate, the President probably feels less vengeful towards the oil giant than he sounds right now in public. Mr Cameron will certainly be hoping that vague-sounding threats to make it difficult for BP to continue operating in America are not acted on; that would not only have long-term consequences for BP, it would also damage British pension schemes.

If the worst oil spill in history is not to hijack the Cameron-Obama meeting, it is of course essential that BP's latest plan to cap the broken pipe delivers results, thereby allowing the company to concentrate more on minimising environmental damage. But it is also important that BP's chief executive, Tony Hayward, puts a cap on his own stream of self-pitying and self-regarding remarks, which have only inflamed US hostility towards the company and indeed towards Britain.

From the now infamous complaint that he wanted "his life back" to yesterday's smug-sounding assertion in a television interview that BP would remain in the Gulf "long after the media have gone", the public face of BP has continued to display a tin ear for public opinion, turning himself into an almost pantomime figure, the proverbial smooth-talking, ill-intentioned Brit of so many Americans' darkest imaginations. Over and above the question of Mr Hayward's individual gaffes, his responsibility for the overall direction of BP's public relations strategy with regard to the oil spill needs to be taken into consideration. From a distance in time of more than six weeks, this strategy must be pronounced a total failure.

It is clear that by repeatedly underestimating the likely scale and implications of the oil spill, all BP did was delay and magnify the explosion of anger, which might have been defused had the company not relentlessly maintained its front of ill-founded optimism. Whether Mr Hayward is the author or merely the executor of this counter-productive strategy is not clear. We are entitled to wonder what role, if any, BP's nearly invisible chairman, Carl-Henric Svanberg, played in this.

For weeks, it has been apparent that Mr Hayward's long-term prospects as boss of BP hang in the balance. Until now, the feeling has been that he ought to remain in post at least for as long as it takes to surmount the worst of this crisis. But if he does not start to display more sense and sensitivity in his all-important communications with the American public, pressure will grow for him to step down sooner rather than later in order to let someone else do a better job.