Michael Cole, the bouffant-haired front-man for Harrods owner Mohamed Al Fayed, stepped down yesterday, sparking the kind of conspiracy theories he had fostered under his master since the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, and Dodi Fayed. "Did he fall or was he pushed?" was the question being bounced around media circles after the world's most famous department store unexpectedly announced his retirement at the age of 55.
Harrods and Mr Cole, a former BBC Royal Correspondent, issued a joint statement which said the departure was amicable and mutual. But the subsequent unavailability of Mr Cole fanned the flames of speculation. Not only had the announcement been timed to coincide with a Cole family holiday at a secret location, but his home and mobile telephone numbers also went dead. It was an abrupt end to a morbidly momentous year for Mr Cole, who joined Harrods as director of public affairs in 1988 after 27 years as a journalist.
He had borne a huge responsibility in the weeks after the deaths of Diana and Dodi. Some would argue the role was made more difficult because it involved repeating Mr Fayed's insistence that Henri Paul, driver of the car in which the princess and Mr Fayed's son died, had not been drinking excessively. A post-mortem examination showed he was over the limit and had been taking prescription drugs.
More recently, Mr Fayed's claims that the couple were murdered and that he was told of Diana's "last words" - words which doctors said were never uttered - may have sat awkwardly with Mr Cole's instincts as a former journalist.
During his time with Mr Fayed, Mr Cole projected the smooth, sophisticated face of Harrods. Those who have met Mr Fayed know that he is prone to lapse into expletives and raucous anecdotes. During interviews it was not unusual for Mr Cole to interrupt, reminding the diminutive Egyptian that he hadn't meant to say one thing but had really intended to say another. His firefighting exploits on behalf of Mr Fayed involved projecting the Egyptian's argument in his fight over Harrods with arch-enemy Tiny Rowland during the 1980s. They included denying a Department of Trade and Industry report which branded Mr Fayed a liar.
On the battle went throughout the 1990s, Mr Cole voicing the Egyptian's ire at not being granted British citizenship. Then came the fight against the establishment; paying Tory MPs to ask questions and then exposing them.
Next came complicity in the Guardian's battle against Jonathan Aitken, former arms procurement minister, and his denials - shown in court to have been lies - that he was entertained at Mr Fayed's Ritz Hotel by Saudi arms dealers. Mr Cole began his career in newspapers before moving into independent television and the BBC. He left 20 years later after telling a number of tabloid reporters details of a secret viewing of the Queen's Christmas speech.
The disclosure was not an unprofessional one - it was the sort of confidence shared by specialist journalists all the time. But the confidence was not kept and the details were splashed over the papers the following day. His position became untenable, but few believed he would leave journalism for ever.
He was not universally popular with those who had to deal with him. He dished out information like favours and was known for his tendency to be smooth to the point of obsequiousness.
And he was slavishly loyal to Mr Fayed, even when the Egyptian's treatment of him appeared to observers to be less than respectful. Once, an Independent on Sunday journalist was critical of the store after being shown around by Mr Cole. During the visit, the journalist was asked by Mr Fayed if he had children. When he replied `yes', Mr Fayed ordered Mr Cole to fetch a small teddy bear and a coffee table book on The Ritz hotel for the journalist.
When the critical article appeared, Mr Cole wrote to the newspaper asking for the gifts back. The book was returned but the bear had already been given to the child and, with the permission of The Independent's editor, it was retained. For several weeks, Mr Cole wrote at the behest of Mr Fayed asking for the teddy bear back.
On another occasion, a colleague and I visited Mr Fayed as part of efforts to prove that a former minister had accepted diamonds from businessmen for services rendered. We believed Mr Fayed knew the woman buying the diamonds from the MP and asked him to make a phone call to her.
But he could stay on the subject for only a few minutes. Very quickly the conversation moved on to a friend of the woman's. "You tell her," said Mr Fayed, "that Mohamed wants to fuck her. But tell her she must be a virgin. Mohamed only fucks virgins." Mr Cole, presumably wondering why he ever took the job, waved his arms in front of the Egyptian tycoon, who chuckled and carried on regardless.