By JIM ARMITAGE
It’s not always easy getting a straight answer out of Michael Howard.
Ask Jeremy Paxman, who famously asked him 12 times if he had threatened to overrule the boss of the prison service.
The former leader of the Conservative party was similarly tricky to pin down more recently when questioned by journalists about a letter he wrote to the government minister Michael Fallon in his new guise as a chairman of Somali oil company Soma Oil & Gas.
In the letter, he described how the Soma job was “an appointment I accepted with the encouragement of the FCO”.
However, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office flatly denied giving any such encouragement.
There followed long verbal jousting between Lord Howard and the media about what the phrase meant.
Anyway, since then, a Serious Fraud Office investigation has been launched into alleged bribery of Somali officials by Soma, following an investigation by UN monitors.
Soma denies wrongdoing and there is no suggestion Lord Howard was involved. He is not under investigation by the SFO.
“For Somalia to move on and enjoy its oil wealth, we need clarity and transparency.”
Today, he wrote to the UN security council criticising the leak and saying the investigators misinterpreted Soma’s actions. In a combative accompanying press release, Soma warns the leak left Somali officials open to attack from militants and could now delay much-needed oil exploration in the cash-strapped country.
Lord Howard writes the UN monitors showed a “basic misunderstanding” of the oil industry and says the law firm DLA Piper gave Soma advice on anti-corruption measures.
He adds the payments Soma made are standard in developing countries, where staff need training before dealing with the consequences of big oil finds.
He includes a document from another law firm, Akin Gump, describing how such payments, known as Capacity Building Arrangements, are often made.
But to my mind, this serves little purpose beyond spin, given the UN report says CBAs are “relatively common”.
The thing is, they usually involve things like scholarships and training programmes. Not alleged direct payments to civil servants.
It isn’t CBAs per se it criticises, it’s Soma’s CBAs.
Furthermore, I wonder if the UN report is not as naive as Soma claims. It cites advice and evidence drawn from “oil and gas experts, legal experts and diplomats”, not to mention current and former Somali government officials.
Still, Soma and Lord Howard must now be given a full and fair chance to respond, preferably in a public forum.