Guy Hands, one of the most famous corporate raiders of recent British history, has emerged as a £600m bidder for the Co-operative Group's pharmacies chain in a move marking yet another ignominious low for a society based on the socialist principles of mutuality.
Mr Hands, famed for his disastrous takeover of EMI Music just before the global economic crisis, is not the only character in the auction who is likely to appal Co-op members already reeling from having their bank bailed out by US vulture funds. Other bidders include Alliance Boots, the giant corporation notorious for moving its tax base to the haven of Switzerland, and the private equity firm Carlyle, famed in the past for its heavy involvement in the US weapons industry and for hiring George Bush Snr as an adviser. Carlyle is considering a bid through its Holland & Barrett health foods chain.
Other major private equity buyout funds interested in buying the business include CVC Capital, Charterhouse, Cinven and Montagu, Sky News reported.
News that the chain was likely to find such a home came as Co-op members prepared to vote today on whether to accept the radical reforms of the group proposed by the former City minister Lord Myners, which are aimed at giving more power to the executives. The decision about whether to push through his proposals will be made by just 130 people at a special private meeting in Manchester
They will be deciding the future of the 150-year-old organisation, voting on a resolution to make four key changes including creating a qualified board and, controversially for some societies, introducing one member, one vote. The latter resolution is divisive for some societies because it threatens their bloc voting power.
The Midcounties Co-operative, one of the independent societies which make up 22 per cent of the total vote, recently reversed its initial opposition to the Myners proposals and looks set to vote in favour of the new plan this afternoon.
Midcounties' president, Patrick Gray, told the BBC yesterday: "Lord Myners is absolutely right to say that the group needs a smaller, experienced group of board members in order to take some very difficult decisions."
Much of the rest of the vote will be made up of millions of members who vote through their area committees. Members in London are said to have instructed their representatives to reject the Myners proposals.
The gathering of members at the Co-op's headquarters in Manchester will begin with an annual general meeting. This will be followed by the special general meeting at which the vote on the Myners resolution will take place.
Lord Myners, who recently resigned as an independent director, published a report earlier this month urging the group to back radical reforms to sweep away the "dysfunctional" board that oversaw a year of record £2.5bn losses in 2013. The former Treasury mandarin Sir Christopher Kelly also recently published a scathing report on the Co-op saga, focusing on the near-collapse of its banking arm, which was chiefly responsible for the wider group's woes.
Both men will speak at the special general meeting but only after the vote has been held.