Rearguard action to save Oates

A REARGUARD action is being mounted to defend Keith Oates, the deputy chairman of Marks & Spencer, amid reports that he will be ousted this week following the boardroom rift caused by his bid to take over as chief executive.

It was being said over the weekend that M&S's non-executive directors, led by Sir Martin Jacomb, were ready to order Mr Oates's immediate departure for splitting the retail giant down the middle by publicly lobbying to succeed Sir Richard Greenbury when he divides his roles as chairman and chief executive.

Sir Richard, who was forced to cut short a holiday to India last week to fly back and tackle the succession crisis, favours giving the chief executive's job to Peter Salsbury, who, along with Mr Oates, is one of four joint managing directors of M&S.

But sources close to Mr Oates insisted yesterday that he still had support on the board and, moreover, had not been running a one-man campaign to take over the top job against the wishes of Sir Richard.

"Keith's chances of survival this week are considerably better than 50:50. He has quite a few supporters inside and outside the executive ranks, nor does he seem to be under any pressure to fall on his sword," said a source close to the company. "There was a widely held perception that he was running his own lobbying campaign, but that does not appear to be true and the non-executives seem inclined to accept that. He seems to have been unjustly tarred with the disloyalty brush."

It was said that, far from promoting his own candidature, supporters of Mr Oates within M&S spoke out in his favour after being "horrified" at the prospect of the Greenbury-Salsbury ticket.

The company is under intense pressure to clear the air with a public statement this week, perhaps as soon as today.

Mr Oates is said to have more backing from other executive directors on the board than Mr Salsbury. The other internal candidate for the job of chief executive is Chris Littmoden, who runs M&S's American operations and is credited with having turned its Brooks Brothers subsidiary around.

It is thought that if he were to miss out on the top job, Mr Littmoden and another of the joint managing directors, Lord Stone of Blackheath, would line up behind Mr Oates.

However, given the highly public and damaging nature of the schism within M&S, it is not clear that Mr Oates will stay, even if he is absolved of blame for fomenting the schism.

"I think he will stay until a decision is made, and if he doesn't get the chairmanship or chief executive's job he will decide to go himself," said one observer.