Lockerbie and BP cast shadow on PM's visit

Although Afghan pull out should head the agenda at the White House meeting, UK leader expresses concern over 'Brit bashing'.

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LONDON // Supposedly, the strategy in Afghanistan should dominate today's White House talks between Prime Minister David Cameron and the US president, Barack Obama and, at least, there is common ground here with both men determined to extricate their soldiers from the place as quickly as possible. But the future of the oil giant BP and Libya look more likely to be the substance of the discussions than any dramatic moves on bilateral or international relations.

In telephone conversations, Mr Cameron has already expressed his concerns that the president appeared to be indulging in some "Brit bashing" by vilifying the company so loudly and so publicly over the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, even referring to it by the name British Petroleum, which it dropped almost a decade ago. Now the US Senate is preparing to investigate BP's alleged role on putting pressure on the then-Labour government to get Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Ali al Megrahi released early from a Scottish prison so that the company could secure a lucrative oil deal with Libya.

Charles Schumer, a New York senator and one of the president's Democratic allies, piled on the pressure when he told the New York Post yesterday that BP should face a criminal investigation in the US to determine if it should face federal charges for lobbying on al Megrahi's behalf - something the company denies. "No matter how powerful the corporation, how important the foreign government, a blood-money deal is a blood-money deal," Mr Schumer said.

Mr Cameron's office has tried to play down the concern, saying the US debate over how the terminally ill Libyan convicted of the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am flight was allowed to return home "may come up" in his talks with Mr Obama but it is not a "major issue". Mr Cameron told BBC television yesterday that he opposed the Scottish government's decision to release al Megrahi on compassionate grounds last August. He said the decision was "completely and utterly wrong" and added that he "had no idea" what BP did in lobbying the previous government.

Mr Cameron, though, is also under pressure at home on the BP issue. Yesterday's Daily Mail told him that he "must stand up for Britain" and "defend BP" over the oil spill. The Times said that there was "no need for explicit corporate patriotism" but said that Mr Cameron should broker a deal with Mr Obama on compensation payments that would "prevent BP from being driven to the brink". It is a message that Mr Cameron appears to have taken on board already.

After a meeting Carl-Henric Svanberg, the BP chairman, he said last Friday that the company needed more certainty that it would not be held liable for problems it had not caused. "They want to clean up the mess, they want to pay compensation to the fishermen and the farmers and the hotel owners and everyone who has been affected," Mr Cameron said. "But they do need some sort of clarity that the compensation claims won't go into a sort of tertiary and further claims which aren't really related to the mistakes that BP made.

"One of the points I have made to President Obama, and I will make again, is 40 per cent of BP shares are held here but I think its 39 per cent are held in America. "There are tens of thousands of jobs BP provides in Britain but there are also tens of thousands of jobs it provides in America." In Washington, Mr Cameron will enjoy the opportunity of raising his international profile two months after coming to power as head of the UK's new Conservative-Liberal Democrat government, and the personal chemistry between the two leaders appeared good during their first meeting at the G20 summit in Canada last month, despite the fact that Mr Cameron had ignored Mr Obama's call just days before for western governments to retain economic stimulus packages to avoid a double-dip recession. Instead, the new government announced massive cuts in the UK's public spending. * With additional reporting by Associated Press