BP was dealt a double blow yesterday when its embattled chief executive, Tony Hayward, drew further fire from the White House after he was spotted relaxing at a yachting event, and one the company's busi-ness partners blamed it for the oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico and threatened legal action over what it described as "gross negligence or wilful misconduct".
Mr Hayward spent the day on the Isle of Wight – to the ire of Rahm Emanuel, the White House Chief of Staff – as BP officials insisted that he was still in charge of the operation to control the spill.
"This has just been part of a long line of PR gaffes and mistakes," said Mr Emanuel. "To quote Tony Hayward, he's got his life back, as he would say. I think we can all conclude that Tony Hayward is not going to have a second career in PR consulting.
"What's important is: are we capping the well? Are we containing the cleanup? Are we filing the claims? Are we also cleaning up the mess? That's what's important."
BP's spokeswoman, Sheila Williams, said Mr Hayward attended the JP Morgan Asset Management Round the Island Race in order to spend some time with his son, having spent most of the past two months away from family.
Anadarko Petroleum, which owns 25 per cent of the ruptured oil well in the Gulf of Mexico, said that BP had acted recklessly in the run-up to the disaster. James Hackett, Anadarko's chief executive, said it was considering "contractual remedies" and added: "The mounting evidence clearly demonstrates that this tragedy was preventable and the direct result of BP's reckless decisions and actions."
The double whammy from Anadarko Petroleum and Mr Emanuel compounded one of the worst weeks in BP's 100-year history, during which it was handed a £13.5bn bill by the White House, suspended its dividend payout to shareholders and saw Mr Hayward publicly humiliated when he appeared before a congressional hearing.
Mr Hayward sought to put on a brave face after the latest attack, saying: "These allegations will neither distract the company's focus on stopping the leak nor alter our commitment to restore the Gulf coast."
But Anadarko's claim was lent weight by news that BP's well used cheaper anti-blowout technology than the industry standard and was less secure against natural gas blowouts of the type that destroyed it. The company had used this cheaper technology much more frequently than rival firms, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal on Friday.
Mr Hayward's future at the helm of the oil giant increasingly appears to be in doubt, with the BP chief executive now back in Britain and coming to terms with having been removed from his role in leading the response to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
BP's managing director, Bob Dudley, will take over day-to-day management of the crisis, the firm's chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg confirmed on Friday. He said that Mr Hayward had damaged the company's reputation: "It is clear Tony has made remarks that have upset people," he said in a TV interview. "This has now turned into a reputation matter, financial and political, and that is why you will now see more of me."
The firm is believed to have been disturbed by Mr Hayward's performance before a US congressional committee last Thursday in which he was criticised for "stonewalling". During a seven-hour grilling he said on more than 60 occasions that he could not answer the question.
Democrat congressman Eliot Engel told him: "I, like everyone else here, and everyone else in America, am thoroughly disgusted. I think you're stalling. I think you're insulting our intelligence and I really resent it." At one point he was openly mocked by Republican congressman Cliff Stearns, who asked if he could tell them what day it was.
After Mr Hayward had been spotted on the Isle of Wight, Hugh Walding, the local co-ordinator of Friends of the Earth, said that the BP chief executive deserved all the condemnation he has received. "I'm sure that this will be seen as yet another public relations disaster for him from people who have got exceedingly upset about this whole thing," he said.