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Outlook: Never knowingly underestimated

PAY ATTENTION all members of the John Lewis Partnership, this is your chairman speaking. We cannot float the business because it is not ours to sell. Now can everyone please get back to work and that includes you "Mr Sarcastic" who had so much fun at my expense in the letters pages of this week's Gazette.

If only it were that simple for Stuart Hampson and his fellow directors on the central board. The benefits of mutual ownership have been aired repeatedly in this column and now is not the time to rehearse them all over again save to say that were John Lewis to be sold it would be to the detriment, long-term, of the staff, the business and its customers.

But John Lewis has a problem, which is that the issue of ownership is not about to go away, now that it has spread like wildfire through the dining rooms of every branch in the country, fanned by the national press and endless correspondence in the company's own magazine.

Mr Hampson may have thought he could halt this "summer madness" by putting pen to paper and giving it to the partners straight: we are not mutually- owned; rather you are beneficiaries of a trust; there is no pounds 100,000 pot of gold at the end of the rainbow; it is all a cruel dream based on a false assumption. Lie down in a darkened store room until the urge to sell up goes away.

Unfortunately, Mr Hampson has merely added fuel to the fire, by demonstrating what a divisive issue this has become. Inadvertently perhaps, his article also highlights the fact that not all partners are equal and some could be in line for considerably more than pounds 100,000 by way of a flotation windfall.

If the correspondence columns of the Gazette are any guide, then, even after the John Lewis board has rallied its supporters, there is still a majority of the partners who would like to take the money and run.

How, then to douse the flames. If this were a building society then the answer would be simple. Allow a pro-conversion candidate to stand for election to the board and see how he, or she, fared. That is not an option which is open to John Lewis. In order to be voted onto its ruling central council, a partner first has to agree in writing to uphold the constitution of the partnership as originally laid down by Spedan Lewis when he handed over the business.

Likewise, it would be futile standing for election as one of the three trustees of the constitution, who, along with Mr Hampson and the deputy chairman, constitute the John Lewis Partnership, Trust, since only those who are on the central council have a vote.

Pro-conversion partners could press the nuclear button and persuade a sympathetic backbencher to pilot the necessary Private Bill through Parliament in order to change the terms of the trust.

What is needed is some mechanism for testing the real level of support among the 40,000 partners for ending John Lewis's partnership status. Mr Hampson may argue that a referendum would have no meaning because the partners could not vote for a sell-off even if they wanted to.

But the fact is that until this boil is lanced, the argument over the ownership of John Lewis will continue to have a corrosive and destabilising effect and a significant propostion of the staff will remain malcontent. Mr Hampson has the moral authority to keep the business a partnership. But he may also have to prove that.