Lunch with The MandarinFebruary 16, 2012
That morning The Mole received a telephone call from his friend The Mandarin, at the Old Admiralty Building.
“Usual time,” The Mandarin said. “Usual place.”
The Mole said: “Right ho!” And that was it.
They met at the Travellers Club at 1pm. It is the right sort of place for spooks to be unseen. The Coffee Room was busy with hushed voices and scurrying waiters. The two men shared a common mistrust for the political classes, agreeing that modern politicians were morally bankrupt, and interested only in winning and staying in office.
“I dare say that you recognise the concept of moral bankruptcy,” smiled The Mandarin. “What with your links in Formula 1.”
The Mole sighed.
“It is the bane of my life,” he said. “My job is to defend an industry that spends most of its time undermining itself, and allowing the Bible-bashing NASCAR folks to lead the race to the moral high ground.
“Praise the Lord,” said The Mandarin, with such disinterest that The Mole almost yawned. “It seems like they are making a bit of a mess of this Bahrain business. I read that this Ecclestone chap has said that there is nothing wrong with going and it is all being caused by kids. I know he is 80-something years old and does not care, but there are times when he really ought to keep his mouth shut.”
“He’s rather good at that,” said The Mole. “When he’s in court.”
The Mandarin smiled.
“I wonder if he’s after a knighthood?” The Mandarin said. “This is a convoluted way to do it, but…”
The Mole looked puzzled.
“It’s simple,” said The Mandarin. “I know it has all been a bit messy in Bahrain but, you see, they are our friends.”
“My enemy’s enemy is my friend?” said The Mole.
The Mandarin nodded.
“Basically, but it is a teensy bit more complicated than that. We invite them to royal weddings and things. Did you know that despite all the troubles there have been there, the Earl and Countess of Wessex – Prince Edward to you and me – visited Royal Navy personnel in Bahrain over Christmas? Everyone talks about the Yanks having a big military base there, but we are there too, flying under the radar. The royals visited some submarine, a dull support ship and then something called the UK Maritime Component Command, which sounds like some DIY parts supplier to yacht clubs, but is, in fact, the hub of the Royal Navy’s operations east of Suez. There are a bunch of minehunters based there. And guess what? The Crown Prince of Bahrain toured the same submarine as well and made some speech about Britain and Bahrain enjoying strong and secure relations in order to promote the continued peace and stability in the region. Blah, blah, blah. His son, Sheikh Mohammed is currently on an exchange programme with the British Army.”
The Mole raised an eyebrow.
“Then,” The Mandarin went on, ignoring the smoked salmon that has arrived in front of him. “The Defence Secretary Philip Hammond made a speech in Washington, pledging the Royal Navy’s continued presence east of Suez. I believe he said that it was in the interests of all nations to ensure that “the arteries of global trade are kept free, open and running”. I have the quote written down somewhere. He said that disruption of the flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz would threaten regional and global economic growth and that Britain would suck up to America and fight to keep it open.”
The Mole nodded.
“And, of course, we send them weapons,” The Mandarin went on. “The Business Secretary Vince Cable admitted as much recently, when he told a parliamentary committee that we do trade with governments that are not democratic and have bad human rights records. I also spotted a quote from Armed Forces Minister Nick Harvey, who admitted in a written report to parliament that it might be possible that some members of the Saudi Arabian National Guard in Bahrain may have undertaken some training provided by the British military mission.”
“And the Bahrainis too?” said The Mole.
The Mandarin shrugged, as if to say yes, without actually saying it. A gesture marinated in deniability.
“The thing is that we have to give the appearance that we disapprove of what they are doing to their people,” he said. “One has to be realistic in foreign policy. If we are not nice to them then the Russians or the Chinese will be. The one thing that we do not want is the Iranians getting in there. I think we have some fairly robust individuals out there. Officially they are chasing pirates, but I suspect that they are making sure that Iranians don’t send dhows full of mullahs to Manama. Anyway, Russia will not criticize and condemn Syria because that sad and sorry government buys arms from Brother Russky, and allows the Russian Navy access to a warm water port. Our Foreign Secretary is happy to criticize Syria, but he has been quieter than a Trappist mouse on the subject of Bahrain, beyond saying that Britain supports reform and dialogue blah, blah, blah. Double standards of Olympic proportions, old boy. The British and the Americans are supporting the Bahrainis and are whistling loudly when people say that these folk are torturing and killing people. Human rights are only important if it is our enemies who are doing the bad things.
“So our Bahrain policy is based on the idea that it best serves the democratic world to keep the oil flowing, rather than allowing the people of Bahrain proper democracy. And all this disruption is causing money to leave Bahrain and so it is important for things to appear to be normal, which is why they are all so keen on the Grand Prix going ahead, to send out the message that it is business as usual.”
“Business as usual,” said The Mole, with a hint of sadness in his voice.
“At the same time the politicians over here have to protect themselves and so the Foreign Office warns punters that there is a general threat from terrorism in Bahrain. That attacks could be indiscriminate, and against Western, including British, interests, as well as against civilian targets, including places frequented by expatriates and foreign travellers. They even say that terrorists continue to issue statements threatening to carry out attacks in the Gulf regions. These include references to attacks on Western interests.”
“And Formula 1 is a Western interest,” said The Mole. “The job of my department is to protect the F1 industry in Britain and so we want the teams not to go because no good will come of it for F1 and the motorsport industry. Yes, Bernie will get the money, but remember that these days he is really only a servant to CVC and the teams. They get the money. I am very suspicious about the teams because they are all singing from the same songsheet, saying that they have faith in the FIA and Bernie. They never agree on anything, unless there is a reason to, so I guess that they are setting up Bernie and Jean Todt for a fall. And because it pays them well. Most of them are short of cash this year. People forget that Bernie makes the calendar, not the FIA. It simply agrees what he wants. When they cancelled last year Bernie did an impressive volte-face and the custard pie landed on Todt’s head, because he ducked too late. I expect the same charade will happen again. They are all trying to lay the blame on someone else because no-one wants to upset their friends in Bahrain. Everyone knows that McLaren is heavily loaded with Bahrain money and, of course, Todt’s son Nicolas is a part-owner of what is now called Lotus Grand Prix, in partnership with the Crown Prince of Bahrain, so the obvious conclusion if there is trouble is that Jean is doing this to help his kid. But that makes no sense at all because his main goal at the FIA is international advocacy, aiming to give the FIA credibility in the world of governments. And why would any government listen to someone going on about road safety when they overtly support a regime that runs people over with police cars?”
The Mandarin smiled.
“You have a point?” he said. “The human rights people are not making this stuff up. You certainly cannot trust the Bahrain government because they denied everything last year until the independent report confirmed that everything that the opposition, foreign media and human rights people had said was true. Are we supposed to believe that they really will reform things as the report recommended? The whole thing is a mess, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” said The Mole. “It is a PR disaster waiting to happen. I have to try to stop them going. “
“And some of the other ministries want them there,” said The Mandarin. “To be quite honest, I don’t see why the naval people could not ship out to Dubai. The Grand Prix too, come to that. I am sure that the Dubai people would love to get a Grand Prix at the expense of the Bahrainis.”
“Politics, politics,” said The Mole. “And to think that Bernie is claiming it is not political when MPs are trading letters in the Times.”
“Who reads the Times these days?” said The Mandarin.