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John Browne: oil man caught up in Huawei backlash

John Browne has long looked a pillar of the British establishment. Knighted in 1998 when chief executive of BP, he has been a frequent adviser to government, has a seat in the House of Lords and is a patron of the arts and science.

But his decision this week to step down as chairman of Huawei UK, hours before the British government banned the Chinese company from supplying new equipment to 5G networks, has cast him in a more complex light.

A champion of global business, Lord Browne’s interests have butted up against a shift in world politics as countries such as the US and UK take a more populist, insular turn.

A day after he announced he was stepping down from Huawei, another company he chairs, L1 Energy, which is owned by billionaire Mikhail Fridman, was indirectly criticised by the US for its role in Russia’s Nordstream 2 gas pipeline, which Washington is seeking to stop.

“Get out now, or risk the consequences,” Mike Pompeo, US secretary of state, warned companies including Shell and Wintershall Dea — part-owned by L1 — which have provided financing for the pipeline.

The changing tides have left Lord Browne in an uncomfortable position. Lord Browne, who resigned from BP in 2007, has privately said he left Huawei because he saw the writing on the wall.

He viewed his role as helping the Chinese company navigate a British business culture it did not always fully understand. With the UK government’s decision looming, his position had become pointless, if not untenable.

Bob Dudley, who stepped down as BP chief executive this year, said Lord Browne had spotted Huawei’s potential early: “I talked to him about it a long time ago and he just said ‘they’ve got great technology’.”

But the Trump administration and a growing band of UK politicians see the company as an extension of the Chinese state, with close ties to its military and security apparatus.

Lord Browne’s rise to the upper echelons of British society was, he would argue, never a straightforward fit.

Born in Hamburg to a British army officer and a Hungarian Jewish mother who survived Auschwitz, he attended a “minor British boarding school” before studying physics at Cambridge.

His BP career was a whirlwind tour of international exploration and production projects before he joined the board as managing director in 1991, becoming chief executive four years later.

His peers say there was at times a naivety to his decisions. Terrified of being outed as gay, he believed he had kept his sexuality secret, telling the Guardian in 2014 he had tried to “blend in, be chameleon-like, so no one would notice your private life”, and even comparing his double-life to that of a “James Bond-style” spy.

But he has joked since that being a fiftysomething bachelor who took his mother to events was perhaps not the best disguise. Lying in a court submission about how he met his one-time boyfriend, a former male escort, ultimately led to his resignation.

Charming and gracious, if a little high-handed for some, he was nicknamed the “Sun King” at BP. His foresight in seeing that too many companies were chasing too little oil culminated in the $48.2bn deal in 1998 to buy US rival Amoco, sparking a round of consolidation in the industry.

But critics say his cost-cutting was at least partly responsible for the 2005 Texas City oil refinery fire that killed 15 workers. Three years after he left BP, some argued the same drive had contributed to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

For an oil man he often seemed agnostic about black gold, launching BP’s early foray into renewable energy and the “Beyond Petroleum” slogan that was later abandoned as China’s rise kicked off a decade-long rally in oil prices.

To supporters he was a visionary. BP’s new chief executive Bernard Looney, a protégé, has launched a net zero strategy of cutting emissions and investing more in clean energy.

The start of his Huawei involvement in 2015 chimed with David Cameron’s government of the day, which pushed for closer ties with rising powers such as China and signed deals for investment in Britain’s nuclear power programme — projects that are still going ahead.

But oil executives are accustomed to dealing with regimes that raise eyebrows at home.

Lord Browne helped create Russian joint-venture TNK-BP with Mr Fridman, which ended with Mr Dudley being chased out of the country in 2008 before it was taken over four years later by state oil champion Rosneft. BP got a near 20 per cent stake in Rosneft in the process, however.

Life after BP life has been happier. Lord Browne, now in his seventies, lives with his partner of 13 years, former Goldman Sachs banker Nghi Nguyen. As lockdown eases, friends have visited their Chelsea home, where he has had social-distancing markers — “the demilitarised zone” — installed in the grounds. 

These days he seems most excited when talking about the Francis Crick Institute, the medical research organisation he chairs that is involved in the race to defeat Covid-19.

He has reflected that this is not everyone’s first new viral crisis, given the effect of HIV on the gay community. And he has argued it may force a rethink on how we live, including our approach to climate change — he suspects it may accelerate a peak in oil demand. 

What he does next is up in the air. His first plan is to fly to Venice, where he has a second home. He was also appointed this week to the board of the Royal Opera House.

Friends say he has never been comfortable being described as a member of the establishment — but it is still happy to embrace him.

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