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Business Comment

Mark Leftly: Will Tony Hayward be given his old life back – to chair Glencore Xstrata?

Outlook It was an astute question, but Ivan Glasenberg doesn't slip up easily. More importantly, the billionaire South African usually gets what he wants and we now have a good idea of what – or who – his latest target might be.

It is worth reading quite a lot into the Glencore Xstrata chief executive's response at a media call yesterday, when asked whether Tony Hayward could take over as chairman of the mining giant on a permanent basis: "Of course he's a candidate."

Mr Hayward is the former BP boss who infamously –not to mention insensitively – sighed that he would "like my life back" in 2010 during the Gulf of Mexico oil-rig disaster that killed 11 people.

Having left the oil major shortly afterwards, Mr Hayward has enjoyed a surprisingly swift rehabilitation and in May agreed to be Glencore Xstrata's chairman on an interim basis. Mr Glasenberg had just achieved his grand ambition of getting his hands back on Xstrata, which Glencore had allowed to spin-out of its clutches over a decade earlier only to become one of the FTSE 100's great success stories of the Noughties.

Having finally created the world's fourth biggest miner, an empire that trades wheat and sugar as well as producing copper and zinc, Mr Glasenberg suffered a rare setback when a huge shareholder revolt prevented Sir John Bond becoming chairman of the combined group. He had been chairman at Xstrata, whose shareholders remained angry at how the former HSBC banker had botched negotiations over eye-wateringly lucrative retention payments for their company's senior management.

Mr Hayward agreed to step in and has been helping in the hunt for a long-term chairman. Although Mr Hayward soon returned to corporate life, even this temporary role is far more high profile than his position as chief executive at Genel Energy, the Kurdistan-focused oil group he joined after leaving BP.

Yet those seemingly in the know argue that Mr Hayward is happier navigating the choppy political waters of northern Iraq – and finding the extraordinary reservoirs of black gold beneath its battle-scarred surface – than returning to the limelight at Glencore Xstrata. Being the chairman of a company that eats billion-dollar deals for breakfast and that faces a US lawsuit alleging that it artificially inflates aluminium prices is a sure fire way of not getting your life back.

But Glencore Xstrata's investors are fretting over why the search for a permanent replacement is taking so long. "We want to do [the selection process] properly," Mr Glasenberg argued yesterday. "We don't want to rush it."

A fair answer. But it would also have been fair enough if he had simply said he couldn't talk about the process, when asked about Mr Hayward.

Maybe this was just a slip of the tongue that meant little more than to praise a man who has helped stabilise a group after more than a year of complicated, occasionally fraught merger-cum-takeover negotiations.

More likely, though, Mr Glasenberg was looking to heap some public pressure on Mr Hayward to take the job. Mr Hayward might have screwed-up towards the end of his time at BP, but he has a thick contacts book, and surely understands the terrain where business meets international politics as well as anyone out there.

No wonder Glencore Xstrata, with its operations in more than 50 countries and in excess of 150 sites from metallurgical operations to farms to offshore oilfields, seems like such an obvious fit for a man who, three years ago, was viewed as a pariah in the business world.

The smart money probably still says that Mr Hayward shies away from the spotlight. But it must surely be tempting to complete the comeback and take on a job that will help him regain much of the respect that he ultimately lost at BP.

And Mr Glasenberg is nothing if not patient. Expect him to keep chipping away at any crack he sees in Mr Hayward's resolve to keep hold of his life.