Complacency may leave Conservatives standing in path of a falling Comet


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The Independent Online

Seeking an explanation for the recent success of political insurgents and outsiders such as Jeremy Corbyn? The Government’s response to the collapse of electrical retailer Comet may provide one or two clues.

When the company went under, around 7,000 people lost their jobs and the taxpayer lost £70m as a result of the costs of their redundancies, which were handled in a manner some way short of best practice.

But what really stuck in the craw was that, by dint of fancy financial footwork, the group’s private equity owner OpCapita and its pals managed to walk away with £114m, having bought the business for just £2.

“The biggest raid in British corporate history”, as it has been dubbed, certainly riled the then business secretary Vince Cable, who ordered investigations left, right and centre. Investigations that haven’t got very far. The Insolvency Service has decided it hasn’t found sufficient evidence to warrant taking any action against anyone. There won’t be any chance for us to look at what it did find because, by law, the findings can’t be published.

You’d imagine that Mr Cable – who’d promised to share those findings with his shadow Chuka Umunna – would have a thing or two to say about this. But unfortunately he’s not only no longer in the Cabinet, he’s also no longer in Parliament.

This wouldn’t matter if his successor were interested in taking up the cudgels, but Sajid Javid appears to have other things on his mind, chiefly a Bill restricting the rights of unions to call strike action that even the Chartered Institute for Personnel & Development thinks is a waste of time.

A better use of it might be to look at reforming the insolvency laws to bring some accountability to directors who take pots of money out of their companies – and leave the taxpayer to pick up the tab for redundancies when they go bust. Or at least he might try to shine a little daylight on investigations mounted by the Insolvency Service. But these would be complicated, challenging and controversial undertakings.  They might even require that other C word – courage. No wonder Mr Javid and his colleagues have opted instead to pick a cheap and unnecessary fight with the unions.

The Comet scandal has some parallels with the banking crisis, when the public again looked on aghast as another group of wealthy individuals got away with conduct that they viewed as larceny but that they were told was basically legal.

Events such as these only add to a mounting feeling of frustration with the political class, which is grist to the mill for the likes of Mr Corbyn, who pledges to do things differently. The Conservative Government might think it is immune to this; it might well feel like it will benefit from Mr Corbyn’s election. But if it continues to ignore scandals such as the collapse of Comet, it may be that it is not immune to getting hit by one.

Ocado delivers the goods but Amazon lurks in the deep

Ocado’s fans were cheering as it again reported sales ahead of expectations. But its sceptics were still finding plenty to get their teeth into, as the average order size continued to fall and the company failed to deliver on its promises to strike a deal with an overseas retailer.

Future of retailing or high-cost white elephant? The reality is probably somewhere between the two and it’s still anyone’s guess as to whether it ultimately ends up closer to the former or to the latter.

In the meantime, the company has some significant challenges to overcome, not least managing its relationship with an under-new-management Morrisons whose contract with Ocado played a key role in the latter declaring a rare profit last year.

Poor Ocado, that’s the stick that is continually used to beat the business. How its bosses must find themselves gritting their teeth whenever Amazon reports results.

Amazon also struggles to make a profit, and has done for years, and yet its army of investors don’t seem to care. As long as it keeps growing, they’re more or less happy.  An expansion beyond the coffee, crisps and booze it currently sells through its grocery arm has long been rumoured as a way of adding to that growth. That is the gorilla in the all the grocers’ mists, and if it ever starts beating its chest in anticipation of taking up the challenge, it won’t be just Ocado that is at risk of ending up as ivory.

Kingfisher takes a hammer to the English language

Did you think flogging screws, drill bits and other DIY equipment would be a simple business? Think again. B&Q owner Kingfisher wants you and I to know that... well, I think it wants you and I to know things are going OK – but I’m not entirely sure. Apparently  the “first wave of unifying our ‘core essential’ ranges” is “to land in stores next year”.

Meanwhile the company is taking action to deal with “surplus space” in “over-spaced catchments”. A programme to unify “Goods Not For Resale (GNFR)” is apparently under way. Oh and the “first wave of unified spend” [£350m] is “on track to land next year”, while a unified IT platform, which is apparently a “key enabler of ‘ONE’ Kingfisher”, is also “on track”.

The group is, meanwhile, pursuing a “limited number of formats and omnichannel everywhere”, while “a unique, differentiated offer” will apparently drive sales at good prices. Perhaps the next step in Kingfisher’s strategy might be to hire someone who can do a little DIY work on its use of the English language.