Congress Showboaters Revel in Hayward Humiliation: Matthew Lynn

There are plenty of things you can fault BP Plc Chief Executive Officer Tony Hayward for.

Inarticulate? Guilty as charged. Indecisive? Certainly. But no one could deny the man has a certain dogged determination.

As he appeared before members of the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee yesterday to testify on the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, he must have known he would have more chance of walking out of a Stalinist show trial with a full acquittal than he did of emerging back into the Washington daylight with his reputation enhanced.

By the time the hearing finished, it was clear that no one was going to emerge with any credit from this undignified charade. In reality, Hayward should never have agreed to appear before this posturing lynch mob. The committee members showed zero interest in getting to the real causes of the environmental disaster unfolding in the Gulf. Instead they were content to score cheap points with a domestic political audience.

There are real political issues to be debated here. How dependent should we be on oil? What risks is society prepared to take to drill for it? How much responsibility for safety rests with companies, and how much with regulators?

The lawmakers weren’t interested in discussing any of that. All they managed to accomplish was to highlight Hayward’s main failing: lack of the necessary verve and aplomb to turn the conversation around.

Give Him a Medal

In the British Army, they give medals for acts of exceptional valor. Perhaps they could come up with something similar for British chief executives willing to do the same thing -- the Royal Order of Congressional Muggings, perhaps. The fact that the chairman of the subcommittee that held the hearing, Democrat Bart Stupak of Michigan, had promised ahead of time that Hayward would be “sliced and diced” gave a fair idea of how balanced the proceedings would be.

It was hardly a fair match, and was never intended to be. It was a setup from the start. The panel facing Hayward was made up of tough, street-fighting politicians. Each one was determined to prove live on television just how useless, inept and dishonest Hayward was. He fought back with all the vigor of a lettuce caught up in a hurricane.

He sat alone, no doubt painfully aware that the sole talent he has shown since this crisis began was for making embarrassing gaffes. About the only compensation was that at least his chairman, Carl-Henric Svanberg, the man who referred dismissively to the “small people” affected by the oil spill, wasn’t at his side. Any blunders that were to be made would at least be his own.

Baby Brother

Hayward looked as if he’d rather be just about anywhere else in the world -- like playing in goal for North Korea as it took on Brazil in the World Cup. His public persona is hardly inspiring. Hayward comes across as Hugh Grant’s ineffective younger brother. Clint Eastwood might have stood a chance. Hayward was hardly ever in the game.

As the committee members spent more than an hour on grandstanding opening statements, he glanced nervously from face to face, his expression suggesting he was trying to work out who was the good cop. Then an awful thought struck him: There wasn’t one.

It didn’t get any better as the questioning began. Each lawmaker took turns hitting Hayward over the head. There was no shortage of weapons to choose from. Internal e-mails were paraded before us. Hayward’s commitment, on becoming chief executive, to focus “laser-like” on safety was quoted back a hundred times. The widows of the men killed in the accident were cited at length.

In the Bunker

Hayward retreated into his bunker. He argued that we should wait for the results of a full investigation and pointed out that he hadn’t personally managed the rig. But his body language was that of a beaten man.

It was a dismal spectacle. What were the members of Congress hoping to achieve? An admission by BP that it was intent on destroying as much of the environment as possible, and that it planned the spill from the start? The company has already agreed to set aside $20 billion to pay compensation claims. The final bill may be much higher. If that doesn’t persuade it to take safety a lot more seriously in the future, nothing will.

More disturbing is that the subcommittee sidestepped its duty to ask probing and serious questions. There are lots of issues arising from the spill that we should be discussing like grownups.

Stoke the Fires

But those are all difficult issues. And why bother with those when you can stoke the populist fires and maybe get your dismal job-approval ratings up a hair.

If Hayward had a failing it was his inability to confront members of Congress with their own deficiencies and those of America’s energy policies -- such as they are.

Hayward is a decent-enough man put in an impossible position. BP at the moment needs more than decency and doggedness. Its very survival is at stake. The committee’s posturing was a disgrace. Yet BP also needs a stronger response. And very soon it probably will need a new man in charge -- one who can take the fight back to the company’s critics.

(Matthew Lynn is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this column: Matthew Lynn in London at matthewlynn@bloomberg.net

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