P&O ferry P&O ferry. Photo: Aschuff / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0, license linked below article

The Tories are predictably selective in their crackdown on super-rich foreigners, writes Sean Ledwith

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps could not resist the opportunity this week to pose heroically next to an impounded superyacht in Canary Wharf. The £38 million symbol of gratuitous greed, known as Phi, is owned by an unnamed Russian billionaire and has been detained in line with UK sanctions against Moscow for the invasion of Ukraine. Shapps was full of belligerent bluster about how the government is standing up to the Kremlin and those associated with it.

This dramatic move, he claims, “has turned an icon of Russia’s power and wealth into a clear and stark warning to Putin and his cronies … Detaining the Phi, proves, yet again, that we can and will take the strongest possible action against those seeking to benefit from Russian connections.”


In contrast, Shapps’ dealings with the equally parasitical bosses of P&O Ferries has been noticeably less successful. Also this week, Shapps called on the Dubai-owned company to postpone the March 31 deadline for the 800 sacked seafarers to accept redundancy offers. P&O chief executive Peter Hebblethwaite responded curtly to Shapps’ plea, citing hypocritical concern for the families of other P&O workers:

“Complying with your request would deliberately cause the company’s collapse, resulting in the irretrievable loss of an additional 2,200 jobs. I cannot imagine that you would wish to compel an employer to bring about its downfall, affecting not hundreds but thousands of families.”


Hebblethwaite’s audacity in claiming to be concerned about working-class families is jaw-dropping. This is the man who authorised the infamous Zoom call on 17 March telling 800 employees: “I am sorry to inform you that this means your employment is terminated with immediate effect on the grounds of redundancy. Your final day of employment is today.”

P&O’s concern for families then extended to giving them five minutes to collect their possessions and get off the boats or be thrown off by hired thugs. A few days later, Hebblethwaite appeared before a parliamentary committee and brazenly admitted the company’s actions in dismissing the 800 workers was completely illegal.

If Shapps can impound Russian boats, many will be asking why Hebblethwaite was not marched off in handcuffs for admitting – in the institutional heart of the legislative process – that he authorised law-breaking?! Shapps subsequently called on Hebblethwaite to resign but the man who has become the new face of capitalist hubris remains defiantly in post. He knows that for all the Tories’ posturing of feigned dismay at the actions of P&O, this government has, over the last twelve years, promoted a climate of unashamed greed that makes such brutal treatment of workers entirely predictable.


The criminal and reckless nature of P&O’s jobs massacre has been highlighted still further by the detention of two of their vessels last weekend by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency for breaches of safety guidelines. The MCA blocked the departures of the European Causeway from Larne and the Pride of Kent from Dover for failures to ensure their respective crews were appropriate trained and familiar with essential safety procedures. This disregard for the welfare of staff and the public is totally predictable in light of P&O’s shameful willingness to replace staff with decades of experience with overseas workers hired on derisory and exploitative rates.

The management have peeled back the lid on the callous reality of neoliberalism in the UK. All the speeches about levelling up are reduced to useless waffle in the face of P&O’s crass behaviour and Shapps and the rest of the cabinet know it. This is the time to turn up the heat on the government and demand that a company that handles 15% of the country’s freight cargo is taken into public ownership.

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Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History at York College, where he is also UCU branch negotiator. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters