WASHINGTON – British Prime Minister David Cameron sought to ease transatlantic tensions over BP Plc on Tuesday as he headed into talks with President Barack Obama that could test the vaunted "special relationship" between the two countries.
Cameron, speaking on National Public Radio before his White House visit, said BP had to do "everything necessary" to cap its blown-out oil well in the Gulf of Mexico, clean up the massive spill and pay compensation.
But he said the firm had no role in the release of the Lockerbie bomber from a Scottish prison last year and agreed to meet with U.S. lawmakers to discuss the issue, which had threatened to complicate transatlantic ties.
"Let's be clear about who released (Libyan bomber Abdel Basset) al-Megrahi," Cameron said. "It was a government decision in the U.K. It was the wrong decision. It wasn't the decision of BP. It was the decision of Scottish ministers."
Cameron's first visit to Washington as British prime minister comes amid a U.S. backlash against BP. With an eye to British pensioners and other investors at home, he has pledged to stand up for the embattled company.
Smiling and chatting amiably as they sat down in the Oval Office, the leaders were due to tackle an agenda dominated by the war in Afghanistan and the global economy. Aides said the meeting was aimed at building on a personal rapport they struck up at last month's Group of 20 summit in Canada.
But BP and its role in the worst oil spill in U.S. history loomed large. Differences over U.S. treatment of BP and over approaches to the global recovery raise fresh questions about a historic Anglo-American alliance already past its heyday.
Scoffing at "endless British preoccupation with the health of the special relationship," Cameron wrote in the Wall Street Journal that he would be "hard-headed and realistic" about U.S. ties and said both countries must also strengthen bonds with rising powers like China and India.
DEMANDS FOR INQUIRY
Already under fire over the Gulf disaster, BP faces demands from U.S. lawmakers for an official inquiry into whether it had a hand in the release of the Libyan convicted in the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am flight over Lockerbie, Scotland.
Cameron planned to meet on Tuesday night with the four U.S. senators from New York and New Jersey, his aides said.
BP has confirmed it lobbied the British government in 2007 over a prisoner transfer deal for fear its commercial interests in Libya were being damaged.
But the company said it was not involved in talks on the release of Abdel Basset al-Megrahi, sentenced to life for the deaths of 270 people, including 189 Americans.
On the eve of Cameron's visit, the British government reiterated that it had no plans to re-examine the release, which took place over fierce U.S. objections.
Scottish authorities said they freed the intelligence officer because he was terminally ill and they believed he had only three months to live. He is still alive in Libya.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has also urged Scottish and British authorities to review the case.
Cameron's visit also comes as lawmakers consider a range of rules that could require tougher safety standards on offshore drilling or bar companies like BP from new offshore leases.
Cameron has made clear he will defend BP, saying it must remain strong to make good on its promise to compensate oil spill victims and for the sake of employees and people with pension funds invested in the company in both countries.
Obama, whose approval ratings have been undercut by public anger over the disaster, has taken a hard line with BP, although his rhetoric has softened recently amid criticism his administration had gone too far in bashing the company.
Obama and Cameron will meet amid hopes a capping test on the blown-out well, which has largely choked off the undersea flow of oil, will pave the way for a permanent fix.
UNITED FRONT, DIFFERENCES
Against this backdrop, they will present a united front on issues like sanctions against Iran and try to strike a balance between keeping up the fight in Afghanistan while signaling to skeptical voters they are progressing on exit strategies.
Obama and Cameron are sure to pay homage to their countries' special relationship -- in keeping with predecessors since Winston Churchill coined the phrase in 1946 -- when they hold a news conference after they meet and have lunch.
But Cameron has indicated his new Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition will work pragmatically without giving the appearance of being slavish to U.S. interests.
Obama has also demonstrated a desire to see relations evolve, although he has been careful to avoid offending British sensibilities as he did earlier when he returned a loaned bust of Churchill on display in the Oval Office.
Cameron has led European attempts to cut budget deficits that have ballooned in the wake of the global financial crisis, while the United States has urged caution, arguing that reducing borrowing too fast could hinder the fragile recovery.
Both sides have agreed to disagree for now.
Cameron told NPR that Britain needed to act promptly to cut its budget deficit. "We're not a reserve currency, we're not the United States of America -- we can't take our time with this," he said.
Cameron seems unwilling to be cast as America's "poodle" -- as British media dubbed former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair to former President George W. Bush. But he has acknowledged that Britain is the "junior partner" of the United States.
With more to gain from their encounter, Cameron is also looking to benefit from sharing a stage with Obama, who is more popular in Britain and much of Europe than he is at home.
(Editing by Patricia Wilson and Vicki Allen)
© 2014 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.