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…