M&S’s board still backs Marc Bolland but its patience will not last forever

Mark Kleinman
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THIS was no ordinary trading statement. If Marc Bolland, the Marks & Spencer chief executive, had sold an item from his womenswear ranges last autumn every time the retailer’s advertising slogan had been parroted back at him, he’d have wiped the floor with the rest of the high street.

Last night’s hastily-released quarterly trading update revealed how remote a prospect that is.

The headline figures appeared to portray a food business running out of steam, a womenswear operation whose new leadership will not bear fruit until the summer (at the earliest), and international operations which insiders say in part are labouring to tread water.

A 1.8 per cent decline in overall UK like-for-like sales is likely to heap pressure on the M&S share price when trading starts today.

Yet there are sound reasons to believe that Bolland will still be at the helm a year from now. Boardroom sources confirm that he has the unanimous support of M&S directors, and institutional investors show little sign yet of rebelling over its sluggish clothing sales.

Bolland was right, too, to point out that M&S had opted not to chase volume by discounting as aggressively as rivals such as Debenhams.

But his pleas for patience will count for little if next Christmas proves as disappointing as this one. Bolland’s determination to make a success of his M&S tenure will be sorely tested during the coming months.

Anyone for Sir Gus O’Donnell? The former Cabinet Secretary, once-touted as the leading contender to head the Bank of England, is surely a prime candidate to add some political nous to the board of one of Britain’s many government-bashed banks.

His decision not to apply to replace Sir Mervyn King as the BoE governor may have been influenced by a discreet signal from George Osborne, the chancellor, that Mark Carney had already been persuaded to accept the role.

Either way, it doesn’t appear to have made Sir Gus more amenable to getting his hands dirty on a British bank board.

Word reaches me that he has been sounded out about becoming a non-executive director of Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS). The response, according to one account, was that Sir Gus might be interested, but only as a possible successor to Sir Philip Hampton, the chairman. His lack of banking experience might make that a tall order, but RBS – or others – might be well-advised to persist: a free pass into the corridors of power would be invaluable for the most vilified companies in Britain.

Sir Gus has in recent months become an adviser to TD Bank, which bears few financial crisis-shaped scars.

After the trials of running Whitehall, though, a scandal-free, financially-sound Canadian bank cannot offer enough excitement, can it?

David Cameron’s new year message contained few resolutions. One he could usefully make would be rebuilding relationships with British business leaders after a reorganisation of his business advisory group so shambolic that no amount of Ronseal could varnish the truth.

That may be one of the factors underpinning an invitation to breakfast at Number Ten tomorrow that I understand has been sent to the chief executives of Asda, Asos, the Co-op, Kingfisher, Sainsbury’s and Unilever, among others.

Convened to discuss the economic outlook for 2013, Cameron should expect a session lasting all the way into the weekend if he poses a question such as “What can the government do to help your business?”.

Mark Kleinman is the City editor of Sky News. Twitter: @MarkKleinmanSky