Learning from Browne
Here are some loosely connected thoughts about the abrupt resignation of Lord Browne.
1) His departure was not prompted by homophobia at BP or among BP's shareholders. In fact Lord Browne set out in a very public way a few years ago to transform BP into a model of a diverse, equal-opportunities employer - and has had considerable success in that respect. There is anti-gay prejudice in the City, and UK boardrooms, as there is everywhere in the UK. But that's not what did for him. He quit because of his humiliation at the disclosure that he lied to the court about how he met his former lover.
2) He is paying a very steep price for the misjudgement of lying to the court. Not only is there the loss of up to £15.5m of remuneration from BP, but it will damage his future employment prospects. In a world where companies are obsessed with their public reputations, he will no longer be perceived as the prize he once was.
3) There is something slightly strange that this blow to Browne should stem from a lie that was prompted by his understandable reluctance to disclose that he met his former boyfriend, Jeff Chevalier, via an online male escort agency. I am not downplaying the gravity of the lie. My point is that there have been serious questions about his stewardship of BP for a couple of years. The explosion at BP's Texas City refinery in the US, which killed 15 people in 2005, seems to me to be infinitely more serious than the cover-up of how he met Chevalier. Browne was not directly responsible for that disaster, but he was at the helm and is therefore accountable for Texas City and a raft of other problems in the US.
4) Browne's genius was in buying companies when the oil price was relatively low and thereby transforming BP into one of the world's great oil companies - to the considerable benefit of shareholders and the UK.
5) Integrating what he bought turned out not to be his forte. A more astute board would have spotted this earlier and taken steps to replace him long before his natural retirement age came within sight.
6) The big lesson of Browne's demise is that at the turn of the millennium he had simply become too powerful. Almost no-one - not shareholders, not journalists, not his fellow board members - seemed able to acknowledge that he might have weaknesses and frailties. His power within BP was excessive. The deference accorded to him outside BP was unhealthy. In terms of stature within British industry right now, there is no-one quite like how he was - and that's a good thing. He stayed at BP too long because nobody dared to mention that the chief executive known as the Sun King might not be wearing clothes.