Business View: We've had our fun. Now M&S must start to talk serious

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The Independent Online

If you are reading this column having just returned from a foreign holiday where British newspapers were in short supply, then I have some bad news. You have missed an extraordinary week in the bid battle for Marks & Spencer.

Sadly, I haven't the space to recall all the tales, but highlights include bugged offices, tampered phone records, further revelations of "well-timed share trades", an FSA investigation and, er, prostitutes' calling cards.

But as we enter week six of the bid battle, the fun and exuberance of the past seven days must not cloud the main issue at stake. M&S is still in play, and shareholders have got the task of judging whether to back chief executive Stuart Rose's long-term recovery plan for the retailer or to accept Philip Green's money. That calculation will probably become more finely balanced this week as Mr Green is expected to swoop again and add 10p or 20p to his last offer of 370p a share.

This would put a value of up to £8.8bn on M&S. At this price, if Mr Rose really has the best interests of his shareholders at heart (and presumably he must count himself, as he owns 100,000 shares), he must give the offer serious consideration. There will also be a strong case for Mr Rose to yield to Mr Green's demands and provide answers to the 14 questions he has asked for. Yes, it will be embarrassing for the company when we learn details of Per Una creator George Davies's multi-million-pound contract, but at least Mr Rose can claim that such deals weren't on his watch. The information Mr Green wants doesn't amount to due diligence - nothing near it. And in private, M&S insiders will freely admit this.

But armed with the answers, Mr Green will finally be able to put up or shut up. Then, and only then, will shareholders be able to judge whether to back Mr Rose or take Mr Green's wonga and run.

Sir Peter cashes up

Money or reputation? Sir Peter Davis couldn't have both, so he chose the money. The former chairman of Sainsbury's was ousted on Thursday after shareholders threatened to revolt over his whopping £2.4m bonus. If ever there was a clear-cut case of rewards for failure then this was it, reinforced by Sainsbury's profits warning last week.

In the new age of corporate governance, where shareholders are intolerant of fat cattery, Sir Peter's bonus - estimated to be around 150 times the average annual wage of a Sainsbury's cashier - was doubly preposterous. Unsurprisingly, the City issued an ultimatum: reduce the bonus or we'll vote you out.

And so, Sir Peter decided to take his considerable reward for failure and sacrifice what was left of his reputation. Sir Peter's lawyers are now negotiating with Sainsbury's to agree his final compensation and bonus package, which might add £2m to his settlement, marking a sorry end to his long and at times distinguished career in business.

A new train of thought

So, farewell, then, to Tom Winsor, who returns to commercial law tomorrow after a five-year slog as the country's rail regulator. During his time at the controls, Mr Winsor held running battles with Railtrack, and many of his pointed criticisms of the former public company have now proven to be spot on. But in the Network Rail era - which was supposed to herald a degree of rapprochement in the industry - Mr Winsor kept banging on and on and on.

While no one ever doubted his keen intellect or his encyclopaedic knowledge of the industry rule book, some of the battles he waged, notably with Richard Bowker, the chairman of the Strategic Rail Authority, and with the Department for Transport, were unhelpful.

A six-strong board, chaired by Chris Bolt, the former Lattice Group executive, will replace Mr Winsor. And on Monday week, the Transport Secretary, Alistair Darling, is expected to publish the much-anticipated results of the rail review. His report will herald further changes to the structure of the industry and the way it is regulated. It offers a chance to end some of the petty battles and unite the disparate sections of the industry. That chance must not be squandered.

clayton.hirst@independent.co.uk

Jason Nissé is away

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