License to drill

The novelist John le Carre was once asked how he thought his greatest creation, the cold warrior character of George Smiley, had spent his retirement. Le Carre said the master spy of his imagination would probably be spending his time keeping bees.

Whether your popular image of Smiley is the one from eight of le Carre’s novels, or the one portrayed either by Alec Guinness or Gary Oldman, a dotage of bucolic bliss is certainly more likely than his taking a non-executive directorship at BP. But times change, and the BP boardroom is exactly the done-snooping destination for Smiley’s real-life successor John Sawers. Gone are the days when C, the titular head of Britain’s secret intelligence service, otherwise known as MI6, was an anonymous figure — BP today trumpeted Sawers’ five-year tenure there in a regulatory release.

Look at the list of BP’s non-executive directors and you’ll find a broad range of skills, from balance sheets to drill bits. Sawers’ UK Foreign Office experience before heading the MI6 circus — as a special representative in Iraq and Her Majesty’s ambassador to Cairo, and as foreign policy adviser to former prime minister Tony Blair — means he brings an international outlook and the sort of diplomatic savvy to a company that has long required both of these skills.

This is a good time to get someone with Sawers’ experience on board, and the reason can be found by delving into BP’s history. A century ago, one Winston Churchill intervened to end a cash crisis at what was then the Anglo-Persian Oil Company. Iran is where BP began, and to where it would no doubt like to return. With a possible end in sight to the sanctions that have kept BP and its peers apart from Iran’s giant hydrocarbons reserves, Tehran is making come-hither noises to foreign oil companies. A door is opening. It could be a good time to have a career diplomat around.

For more information, please contact