Outlook: Sir Rick faces a Baker Street mutiny

IT IS A truism that very public boardroom rows just don't happen in smart, highly successful companies. That such a humdinger should have broken out at Marks & Spencer is the clearest sign yet that there is something seriously wrong at what was, until recently at least, Britain's most highly regarded company.

Keith Oates, the deputy chairman, can hardly be blamed for going public in his bid for the top job. Once seen as the natural heir apparent to Sir Richard Greenbury, M&S's combative chairman and chief executive, he was about to be frozen out and passed over for Sir Rick's latest favourite, Peter Salsbury. In a sense, then, Mr Oates has nothing to lose by going for broke in this way, suicidal though the attempt would seem to be.

It is easy to see how this debacle has come about. Sir Richard is a supremely accomplished businessman, but he is also, by common consent, an autocratic and overbearing man. Like many such executives, he's found it hard to let go and as a consequence he's failed to establish a clear succession. This wouldn't necessarily have mattered had M&S continued to forge ahead. Sir Rick would have been allowed to settle the succession in his own time.

Instead, M&S finds itself facing its most challenging trading conditions in years; a radical new approach may be called for. In such circumstances mutiny became perhaps inevitable. Equally inevitably, the mutineers will be hung for their disloyalty, but by the same token, Sir Richard and the company are left profoundly damaged by the experience. The end game is as unclear as ever and in the meantime the ship drifts steadily towards the rocks.

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