John Browne had turned sleepy BP into a global player worth £100bn, picking up a peerage on the way. Then his male ex-lover threatened a tabloid expose, causing him to make a puzzling misjudgment that has cost him his reputation
Lord Browne of Madingley, lover of cigars and good conversation, was enjoying his winter holiday with friends in Barbados when the heart-stopping call came. The head of press relations at his beloved BP was on the line, breaking the news that Browne had been betrayed by his former lover. It can be imagined that his senses instantly went blind to the magic of the Caribbean sun and sand.
Told of a story that a Sunday newspaper was preparing to publish, based on his private conversations with Tony Blair and other senior figures, the chief executive of Britain’s biggest company had a short response. ‘That’s nonsense,’ he said. But Browne knew that the most intimate secrets of his private life were about to be exposed. The following day, he endured a stomach-churning eight-hour flight to London in a race to save his gilded career.
That he has failed disastrously became apparent last week. Browne’s court injunction against the newspaper publishing the story collapsed when he admitted lying under oath about where he had met his former boyfriend, Jeff Chevalier. Like Oscar Wilde and Jonathan Aitken, it was Browne’s own act of legal aggression that had undone him. He immediately resigned from BP, the company said to be in his DNA, and the only one he had worked for, for over 41 years.
So ended the once invincible reign of the man described as Blair’s favourite businessman, the Sun King of the oil industry. Under Browne, BP was transformed from sleepy British also-ran into a major global player, its worth increasing from £30 billion to more than £100 billion. His crown had already been tarnished by questions about his cost-cutting strategy. Under Browne’s watch, there was an explosion at one of BP’s American oil refineries that killed 15 workers as well as a catastrophic oil spill in Alaska. Facing a hostile board and shareholder revolt over his huge payoff after a ‘turbulent’ year, Browne, 59, had been due to step down this July. But it was a 27-year-old male escort from Toronto who turned his graceful departure into a disgraceful exit.
How did John Browne lose his Midas touch? Why did he lie over something apparently so trivial? How could a man of such dynamism and intellect, who gained a first class physics degree from Cambridge and displayed a taste for art, ballet, music, opera and photography, find himself scrapping to keep stories out of the papers like a trashy TV celebrity?
The story of his fall begins with the death of his mother, Paula, his career mentor, emotional anchor and dearest companion. She was a Hungarian refugee who survived Auschwitz; her family did not. On BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs last year, Browne spoke movingly of how he accompanied her to Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem memorial to the six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust. He said that if he could only take one record to the imaginary desert island, it would be Cosi Fan Tutte – the first opera to which his parents took him.
Paula lived with Browne, and became a familiar face at BP, accompanying her son to official engagements and regularly playing the society hostess at his private functions. Once, when asked how he would like to be remembered, Browne replied: ‘I wrote on my mother’s tombstone: “Many chapters lived with purpose.” I would maybe like to merit that as well.’
The impact of her death in 2002 cannot be overestimated. Ian Matheson, 74, who was Browne’s housemaster at King’s School in Ely and remains a close friend, said last week: ‘She was a brilliant person and they were very close. When she died, it was a great loss to him, a terrible blow. His closest companion was taken from him and he must have been very bereft.’ Another colleague and friend, who did not wish to be named, said: ‘He was deeply, deeply upset when she died. It had a powerful effect on him.’
The death might also have been a kind of liberation. That same year, Browne visited the website Suited and Booted, which describes itself as ‘London’s premier escort agency’. The site is popular among wealthy men seeking a male escort (and gives a £1 donation to charity for every transaction).
Whereas, in the past, men of Browne’s stature might have had to run the huge risk of ‘cottaging’ in a public toilet or cruising in a park, today they can find what they are seeking at the click of a computer mouse. Crucially, as it was to transpire, the site brought Browne together with Chevalier, a male escort from Canada. Browne appears quickly to have become besotted, inviting Chevalier to move into his flat and share a luxury lifestyle far distant from his modest upbringing in a broken home in the Etobicoke suburb of Toronto.
Chevalier claimed that, on discovering that his visa was about to run out, Browne helped him to stay in the country by paying for a university course so that he could be classed as a student. Browne also helped set up a company for his boyfriend to trade in mobile phone ring tones, of which Browne and another BP executive became directors.
The relationship was an open secret within BP. Chevalier accompanied the chief executive to company social events and on trips. One employee, who has known Browne for decades, recalled: ‘In all the time I’ve known him, until I met Jeff I had assumed John was asexual and uninterested, or had sublimated his sex drive in his work. We all thought the same.’
Chevalier also had a passport to the political elite. In his judgment at the High Court on Browne’s appeal for an injunction, Justice David Eady alludes to Chevalier’s presence at a dinner in June 2005 organised by BP director of communications Anji Hunter, who was previously the Prime Minister’s ‘gatekeeper’ at Downing Street. A relaxed Tony Blair discussed life after government and aspects of his own character. At another dinner, held in Browne’s Chelsea home, Peter Mandelson, the European Union trade commissioner, and his Brazilian boyfriend, Reinaldo da Silva, were present along with Hunter. They discussed EU trade and Chinese textile quotas. A separate dinner with Mandelson, but without Reinaldo, was notable because ‘Peter Mandelson made certain observations’.
Amid the dry legal language of the High Court judgment, there are glimpses of very human vanity. Chevalier asserted in a witness statement: ‘The Claimant, realising that my clothing was not formal enough for being in public with him, took me to the Venice Prada shop to buy me more formal wear. He would continue to buy me an array of clothing so that I could be presentable once he began to introduce me to his friends and acquaintances.’
The relationship did not last. Browne was 32 years older than his partner. BP had been his life, with a working day from 6am to 6pm, usually followed by an early bedtime. He appears to have let Chevalier down gently. He gave him funds for a lease on a flat in Toronto and the cost of furnishings. According to Chevalier, at a meeting in June 2006, Browne agreed: ‘… that if needed, [he] would assist in the first year of me transitioning from living in multi-million-pound homes around the world, flying in private jets, five-star hotels, £2,000 suits and so on, to a less than modest life in Canada’.
But no agreement was struck and, on Christmas Eve, Chevalier sent Browne an email: ‘… I have nothing left to lose… I am facing hunger and homelessness after four years of sharing your lifestyle… the least I am asking for is some assistance… please respond… I do not want to embarrass you in any way, but I am being cornered by your lack of response to my myriad attempts at communication.’
It was not really necessary to read between the lines. Chevalier was one of the few men in the world with the power to bring down the Sun King. He did not hesitate to do so.
On the first Wednesday of the new year, Browne was on holiday in Barbados, blissfully unaware of the events unfolding on the fourth floor of Associated Newspapers’ headquarters in Kensington, south-west London. There, journalists at the Mail on Sunday were gearing up for the race to their weekly deadline. Amid the banks of computer screens and flickering 24-hour news channels in the open-plan office, a call was put through to the paper’s news editor from a known contact. He said that a man named Jeff Chevalier was ready go public about his relationship with one of the biggest figures in British industry.
The MoS’s formidable news-gathering operation swung into action. Within hours, Dennis Rice, the paper’s investigations editor, was on a flight to Vancouver, where Chevalier was now living. The Canadian proved a convincing witness. Checks were made to verify Chevalier’s identity and his extraordinary claims. His story stood up.
On the evening of Friday 5 January, the MoS’s political editor, Simon Walters, made the call that every public relations executive dreads. He told BP about the story that the MoS was preparing to run. The company did not deny the relationship between Browne and Chevalier. At around 8.30pm, BP’s duty officer frantically phoned Roddy Kennedy, the experienced head of press relations, who was at dinner at a neighbour’s house south of Cambridge. Briefed about the Mail on Sunday’s intentions, he then telephoned Browne and wrecked what was left of his Caribbean holiday.
What the Mail on Sunday was proposing to publish remains in dispute. Insiders at BP argue that it was ‘prurient tittle-tattle’ based on conversations with senior government members, and revelations about Browne’s homosexuality. Sources at the paper insist that Chevalier had a legitimate ‘business politics’ story to tell, which BP’s shareholders had a right to know. The fact that he was a gay escort was ‘a problem rather than a journalist prize’, because it would make an injunction easier to secure and lead to accusations of sleazy muckraking. The sources deny any hint of homophobia and reject the claim that Chevalier has been paid a sum remotely close to the rumoured £40,000.
By Saturday afternoon, the MoS had laid out two pages and cleared the front for its Browne story. But the BP chief had acted swiftly and, with hindsight, perhaps rashly. Before taking off for home, he hired Schillings, a law firm that specialises in defending celebrities against newspapers and that boasts on its website of claiming victories for Britney Spears, Hugh Grant and Kate Winslet. Just before deadline, at 4pm on Saturday afternoon, the MoS received a call from Schillings warning it not to publish.
Schillings had applied to the duty judge who is on standby on Saturdays for such ’emergencies’. At 6pm, a hearing was hastily convened by conference call. The MoS’s legal team sat on a long red sofa in editor Peter Wright’s spacious office, while Browne gave his QC instructions by phone, arguing his right to privacy under the Human Rights Act. Two hours later, the MoS was forced to drop the Browne story and run instead on its front page the news that a Labour minister was sending her son to a £15,000-a-year private school. She was later named as Ruth Kelly.
It was the beginning of a legal battle that lasted four months. Witness statements were given and Eady is understood to have been highly sympathetic towards the chief executive of BP when setting his word against that of a male escort and a tabloid newspaper. But the MoS reporter produced a dramatic smoking gun: proof that Browne met Chevalier via the Suited and Booted website and not, as he claimed, while jogging in Battersea Park. Confronted with the evidence, Browne was forced to admit to Schillings that he had lied.
It proved decisive during a full hearing held in private in Court 13 at the High Court on The Strand on 23 January. Browne had also said his former lover had had a drink and drug problem: medical evidence suggested this was untrue. Browne also earned a stinging criticism from the judge about his claims over where he and Chevalier met, saying: ‘I am not prepared to make allowances for a “white lie” told to the court in circumstances such as these.’ But Eady did injunct several key points in the MoS story, which remain unpublishable.
To the MoS’s astonishment, Browne fought on. He turned to the Court of Appeal, and lost again. His final hope was the House of Lords. Last week, it denied him permission to appeal, forcing him to resign and lose £15 million in bonuses as the story became public. He said in a statement: ‘My initial witness statements… contained an untruthful account about how I first met Jeff. This account, prompted by my embarrassment and shock at the revelations, is a matter of deep regret. It was retracted and corrected. I have apologised unreservedly, and do so again today.’
The MoS sent Rice back to Canada last week to ‘mind’ Chevalier by taking him to a secret location in Central America.
Today’s MoS is a publication that Browne fought four months to prevent, four months that left his life in ruins. He is now understood to be ‘taking a rest’ on the Continent and contemplating his future. There has been speculation he will take up a post running English Heritage or ‘do a Profumo’ by undertaking charity work. Yesterday, a letter of support, signed, by among others, Waheed Alli and Lord Puttnam, was published in The Guardian
A longtime friend yesterday described him with warm words: ‘Charming. Urbane. Polished. Sophisticated. Metropolitan. Impeccably neat. Well dressed. Cigar smoking.’ None, however, was compensation for the misjudgment that brought Browne’s glittering career to an end.
Nor for the loneliness he presumably feels this weekend, betrayed by the man he loved, bereft of the mother he worshipped.