Britain to Obama: Stop Bullying Us Over BP

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Charles Dharapak / AP

President Obama makes a statement to reporters after a meeting on the oil spill with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate majority leader Harry Reid and Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell in the Cabinet Room at the White House

David Cameron's aides say it's just a routine call. But when the British Prime Minister speaks with U.S. President Barack Obama over the weekend, the conversation will be a significant test of the much-vaunted special relationship between their two countries. Obama's tough talk on the BP oil spill is losing him popularity points across the Atlantic, and Cameron is under intense pressure to use the weekend call to challenge the President over what is widely perceived in the U.K. as his anti-British rhetoric over the Gulf disaster.

Since the oil started leaking after an explosion on April 20, BP's shares have lost 40% of their value. That has potentially dire consequences for some of the country's biggest pension funds with huge stakes in the company — the National Association of Pension Funds estimates that U.K. pension funds' exposure to BP is about 1.5% of the funds' total assets, which are worth more than £800 billion (about $1.18 trillion). And Obama's public statements on BP, many Britons feel, aren't helping matters. What has angered many U.K. politicians and commentators is the President's repeated use of the company's long-abandoned name British Petroleum, his remarks about wanting to know "whose ass to kick" and his jibe that if he were the boss of BP executive Tony Hayward, he would have fired him.

Add in comments like those from Democratic Congressman Anthony Weiner that "whenever you hear someone with a British accent talking about this on behalf of British Petroleum, they are not telling you the truth" and suggestions that the Administration may take legal action to stop BP from paying billions in dividends to shareholders, and a U.K. backlash was inevitable.

Perhaps the most strident remarks came from former Conservative Trade Minister Lord Norman Tebbit, who wrote on his blog, "The whole might of American wealth and technology is displayed as utterly unable to deal with the disastrous spill — so what more natural than a crude, bigoted, xenophobic display of partisan political Presidential petulance against a multinational company?"

London's outspoken Conservative mayor, Boris Johnson, joined the chorus of criticism, saying, "I would like to see ... cool heads, a bit of calm reflection about how to deal with this problem rather than endlessly buck-passing and name-calling. When you consider the huge exposure of British pension funds to BP and to BP's share price, it starts to become a matter of national concern if a great British company is being continually beaten up on the international airwaves." And there are reports that John Napier, chairman of one of the country's leading insurance companies, RSA, has written an open letter to Obama accusing him of lack of statesmanship.

Meanwhile, the U.K. press is littered with editorials and comment pieces expressing fears that Obama's remarks are threatening the special relationship by stressing the British responsibility for the catastrophe while apparently skating over the role played by U.S. firms like Halliburton — the contractor who cemented the oil well wall — and ignoring the fact that BP is a multinational company, with headquarters in London and Houston.

Both Downing Street and the White House have been quick to tamp down the flames of what threatens to erupt into a full-scale diplomatic firestorm. Speaking during a visit to Afghanistan — another potential source of strain between the two partners as the U.K. looks to an early withdrawal of troops — Cameron on Thursday said he "completely understood" Obama's frustration, adding, "It is catastrophic for the environment and obviously everyone wants everything to be done that can be done. Yes, of course, it is something I will discuss with the American President when we next talk." Meanwhile, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley has insisted the issue is between the U.S. government and a private company: "This is not about the relationship between the United States and its closest ally."

But for Cameron, the weekend phone call and, more important, his first visit to the White House next month, will set the seal on the relationship, which has always been the defining element of the U.K.'s foreign policy. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair was extraordinarily close with George W. Bush, thanks to their personal chemistry, the bond forged over 9/11 and their shared belief in the threat posed by Saddam Hussein and the action needed to deal with it.

That closeness, however, saw Blair routinely attacked as the President's lapdog, with Cameron, for one, describing Blair's relationship with Bush as "slavish." Now Cameron's task is to show U.K. voters that he is adopting a robust, straight-talking approach to his relationship with Obama — while avoiding the obvious pitfalls of angering the U.K.'s most powerful ally.