BP's board: In charge or in denial?

BBC business editor Robert Peston on a dilemma for the oil giant's board

There is nothing conditional about the departure of Tony Hayward from BP, or his replacement as the company's chief executive by Bob Dudley.

It is going to happen. And it will be announced first thing tomorrow morning.

Or at least that is what will take place, unless a whole series of senior people at the top of BP are playing an elaborate practical joke on me and on the rest of the media, by telling us that's their plan.

Wouldn't it be a hoot if BP's statement tomorrow actually said "fooled ya! Tony Hayward is staying for another five years"?

As you'll have gathered if you've been following this story, confirmation of Mr Hayward's tenure is not a realistic possibility.

So why on earth did BP put out the following statement this morning?

"BP notes the press speculation over the weekend regarding potential changes to management and the charge for the costs of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. BP confirms that no final decision has been made on these matters. A Board meeting is being held on Monday evening ahead of the announcement of the second quarter results on 27th July. Any decisions will be announced as appropriate."

Now of course I understand that the members of BP's board wish to demonstrate that they are in charge of important decisions such as who runs the company. And of course they don't wish to be seen to be bossed around by media leaks.

It is understandable that they wish to make choices and announcements on who is staying and who is going on their own timetable.

But the decision on Mr Hayward's exit has already been taken, to all practical purposes, even if it hasn't been ratified in a formal sense by the full board.

Now I am told there is still some uncertainty about the precise timing of the handover from Mr Hayward to Mr Dudley.

Even so, when it became clear over the weekend that the story about Mr Hayward's departure was out, most companies would have accelerated discussion of that timing issue: emergency board meetings can always be held by telephone.

So here's the interesting question. Has the board of BP struck a blow for institutional freedom from the tyranny of media pressure by refusing to confirm or deny what's already in the public domain?

Or has it showed that in the media age of blogs, Twitter and Facebook, it is still inhabiting a world of telegrams and carrier pigeons?

By the way, over the years BP hasn't altogether shunned the dark arts of spin and "controlled" leaks, so it can't really be claiming to be taking a stand for the supposedly old-fashioned virtue of pretending the media doesn't exist.

The danger for the BP board is that in refusing to be rushed, it creates an impression of being inflexible and unresponsive.

Update 0942: An individual with close knowledge of BP tells me that one reason for the delay in the formal announcement of Mr Hayward's departure is that - as of yesterday - there hadn't been an agreement on severance terms for Mr Hayward.

Apparently there's a good deal of agonising about the "political reaction" to a financial settlement with Mr Hayward which would see him leaving with a very substantial sum of money.

The question is what he'll receive in addition to a pension pot that was worth £10.8m at the end of December and a contractual entitlement to a year's salary, which is £1.045m?

BP's board will want to be fair to Mr Hayward. But putting that aspiration into concrete financial terms is fraught with dangers, especially in this putative age of austerity.

You can keep up with the latest from business editor Robert Peston by visiting his blog on the BBC News website.

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