Can Mike Ashley defy high street reality?

12 December 2020

9:00 AM

12 December 2020

9:00 AM

Separating heroes from villains in the great retail survival struggle is like spotting bent coppers in Line of Duty — whose sixth series, I’m pleased to report, has just finished filming. The plot just keeps twisting. Sir Philip Green, as I said last week, is seen as an irredeemable baddie; and most commentators (though not usually me) put sportswear tycoon Mike Ashley in a similar category, as an opportunist with a track record as a harsh employer. But now here he is, trying through his company Frasers Group to launch a last-ditch rescue for Debenhams, despite having lost £150 million last year in previous pursuit of the department store chain.

He can’t save all 124 shops and 12,000 jobs — but even saving half or a third of them would be remarkable. The point about Ashley is that he has no interest in cashing out, and a burning urge to prove his critics wrong. In the best on-screen drama, the have-a-go maverick always beats the odds: let’s see if Ashley can defy today’s high-street reality.

Then again, there’s a division between big retailers that have flourished this year and opted to return business-rate reliefs to the Treasury, and those that haven’t. The first category includes Tesco, paying back half a billion, the discounters Aldi and Lidl at £100 million each, and Pets at Home (beneficiary of the lockdown puppy boom) at £29 million. On the other side, or still thinking about it, are Marks & Spencer and the John Lewis Partnership, which includes Waitrose — both saying that strong food sales have merely offset damage on the non-food side — as well as the Co-op, arguably our most community-minded retailer.

Should we think badly of those who cling to windfalls they might not have needed? That’s a hot question in a year in which the Chancellor has sprayed money in many directions and taxpayers would clearly wish him to recoup any that was wasted. But my answer goes in a different direction: that government should make this episode a reason to reform the whole business-rate system as a smart catalyst for town-centre revival — rather than reverting to treating it, as in the past, as a £30 billion source of easy pickings.

Backroom billionaire

The lesson of this column so far is that business has many shades between hero and villain — and that those who make headlines by owning shopfronts loom largest in our vision. But this week saw the announced retirement of a backroom billionaire who deserves at least a footnote. Ivan Glasenberg is stepping down after 18 years as chief executive of the Swiss-based miner and commodity trader Glencore — a giant player in zinc, copper, coal and oil and one of two powerful but low-profile business empires (the other is Trafigura) that descend from the activities of the late Marc Rich, the so-called godfather of global commodity trading, whose misdeeds were pardoned by Bill Clinton. If it’s moral dilemmas you seek, take a closer look at that sector.

Grand technocrat

I once spent an amusing evening in the company of Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. His English was impeccable but his pronunciation would have won an audition for ‘Allo! ‘Allo! — as he explained, his Balliol–educated father told him to master our language but not demean himself by imitating our accent. Political detractors mocked him for that kind of hauteur, but it was delivered with good humour. When I asked him whether he thought of himself as ‘a democrat or a technocrat’, he moved up another gear. ‘I have recently studied the whole of world history, again — and have concluded that the most progressive periods of government occurred when wise, experienced leaders were given long terms of office and left to get on with governing.’

He was of course referring chiefly to his own seven-year presidency of France, in which it’s fair to say he achieved two great modernisations that stand its economy in good stead to this day. The first was to advance the nuclear power programme which still provides some 70 per cent of the country’s electricity, freeing it from reliance on imported carbon fuels. The second was to champion the development of a transformative network of trains à grande vitesse. Both were pushed forward with near-zero public consultation — so could never have happened in the UK, where decade after decade we pay the price, in halted or never-started infrastructure schemes, for asking our citizens what they think they want.

Bureaucratic zealots

Ampleforth College, the Roman Catholic public school in North Yorkshire, has been ‘put on death row’ — says Charles Moore in the Daily Telegraph — by a restriction order from the Department for Education preventing it from admitting new pupils. I cannot improve on Charles’s fair summary of the school’s past ‘safeguarding’ lapses, nor his magisterial demolition of the DfE’s ideologically driven case. But living as I do three miles from the Ampleforth campus, let me urge secretary of state Gavin Williamson to count the potential economic cost of his department’s intervention.

Seen as a business, Ampleforth has already responded to regulatory criticism by changing its senior management and non-executive board. It has maintained a brand that wins loyalty from current parent–customers as well as rising numbers of applicants to become new ones. It is the largest private-sector employer (400 on the payroll) in a rural district whose other main sources of work are farming and hospitality. Its £15 million of annual revenues include £4 million from overseas parents and visitors — an example of education as a UK export strength for the post-Brexit era. Do you really want to shut all that down, minister? In this locality we believe Ampleforth has already transformed itself while holding on to the best of what it had before. We pray for its deliverance from bureaucratic zealotry.

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