Lord John Browne, Sun King of casino capitalism, Blair’s favourite businessman and a High Court liar, is the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time. The qualities needed – if indeed such an appointment is required at all – are personal integrity, an unblemished record, and an understanding of the real nature of government and democracy. Browne is a failure on all three counts, as his following record shows.
His responsibility for the BP oil refinery explosion and fire in Texas in 2005 which killed 15 workers should alone have ruled him out on grounds of risk negligence and corner-cutting over health and safety. It occurred after a string of earlier episodes in the decade including leaking pipelines in Alaska and a price-fixing scandal in the propane trade. An official US investigation into the causes of the disastrous Texas fire concluded in 2007 that senior BP executives under Lord Browne had failed to act on red flags over safety, and even after the fire the Obama Administration a year ago imposed a £53m fine on BP because it had issued 270 notifications for failure to correct hazards and had found 439 new ‘wilful violations’. As Chief Executive Browne should then have been sacked and prohibited from any future top position in business or public life.
Nor can Browne escape liability over the catastrophic Gulf of Mexico oil spill which was caused by the same lax safety culture which he himself put in place. Two days before the rig exploded Halliburton, one of BP’s contractors, warned that if BP didn’t use more centring devices (to keep the pipeline properly located in the well-hole), the well could face a ‘severe gas flow problem’. The warning was ignored. The join between sections of different sized metal casing (known as an anulus) is normally sealed, but according to one report one anulus was not sealed, potentially allowing gas to leak up the well. And instead of the usual top plug of cement at the base of the well-hole, plus a volume of drilling mud and a bottom plug, BP is alleged to have replaced some drilling mud with lighter, cheaper seawater which is less able to withstand the pressure of rising gas.
All of this is about corner-cutting to maximize profitability, whatever the risk. The person who presided for so long over such a dangerous culture is unfit thereafter to hold any position of high responsibility.
Even leaving aside Browne’s disreputable business record (which also includes claims of extensive BP corruption in winning oil contracts in several countries such as Azerbaijan), there is the fundamental question whether a Whitehall ‘super-director’ charged with injecting business ethos into government is an appropriate policy at all. Whitehall is not meant to be a private company or to act like one, and government is not UK plc. Business is broadly focused on a single objective – maximizing profit and share value. Democracy is about consent and reconciling disparate interests, has multiple objectives, and is much more diffuse in operation. Repeated previous attempts to impose one wholly different format on the other have always failed. So will this one.