Is it a clumsy-footed, lumbering dodo? Is it a zeppelin? No, it is the 'Little Emp' riding to the rescue of up to 12,000 jobs sporting a four-by-seven metre cape. That wheezing sound is Mike Ashley racing to seal a last-gasp rescue of Debenhams, like Billy Bunter waddling lumpishly toward a closing-down sale of the school's tuck shop.
Ashley has been in and out of retail's longest goodbye more times than his own finger exploring a lavishly stocked cream horn. In an hilarious exchange between Britain's high street's bygone big-hitters Ashley flattered NTI's great friend Philip Green by calling him 'Big Emp', short for 'Big Emperor'. Green responded by referring to Ashley as 'Little Emp'. How we all, including the BHS pension scheme contributors and the supporters of Newcastle United Football Club, laughed.
Between them, these tubby tycoons carved up Britain’s high streets at the beginning of this century, Green from his throne in charge of the ascendant Arcadia chain, and Ashley acquiring Lilywhites, Carlton, Karrimor, Slazenger and LA Gear. Green likes his boat and fashion friends, Ashley loves a lock-in and a kebab; they have their own styles and their own way of doing things, but this latest chapter of a story that tells the tale of a now soured relationship has dominated business news media for the past three weeks or more. Is there really one more headline for Debenhams? Are J D Sports going to move into the store chain's premises after all?
The chat up and down the high street this morning is that Fraser's, which owns Sports Direct, are trying to thrash out a deal with the no doubt astonished Liquidators of Debenhams that could value the chain at more than £200 million. The final sum depends largely on how much stock the swarms of locusts queuing outside stores up and down the UK at six every morning leave in their wake. If these talks are successful, Frasers would operate Debenhams’ 124 stores under 12-month licences. If you are Valerie, working in the make-up department at Guildford's Debenhams, this may the best news you could have hoped for in the run up to the strangest Christmas since 1 BC.
Spokespeople for Fraser's were striking a cautious note, which is never knowingly a part of a knife-edge negotiation (just ask M Barnier and Lord Frost), saying that Debenhams overreliance on Arcadia's brands could take the journey across a raging river for the store group over "a bridge too far". The NTI newsroom's advice to Hilco Capital is to beware an Ashley scorned; Mr Plump feels he was left out of the equation, as suitors for the department store came and went in the last few weeks, and he has lost his shirt on the deal as its major shareholder. Hilco have some advantage as it is well known that Ashley has long held a wish for Debenhams to join with House of Fraser on the high street and this could yet tilt the talks. However, I wouldn't fancy a one-hand-takes-all game of three card brag with Little Emp, would you?
In a Hollywood style 'story sympatico' two other opposing parties (who could, at a stretch, also be called Big and Little Emp respectively, The EU and our own glorious United Kingdom), are entering last minute do-or-die negotiations, as our own porcine negotiator, BJ, is said to have the backing of his cabinet for a no-deal Brexit. Yesterday, Boris Johnson told the EU Britain must have the 'freedom to make its own rules' and Brussels must back down. What is the next move for the diminutive M Macron, who has made his views over fish very clear? To be fair, the two sides have only been negotiating for about four and half years, so there is a good chance these last little niggles may not have come up before.
"Fish? oh, you want to have Britain's FISH? Forgive us, we misheard you and thought you said 'level playing field'."
In a reference reminiscent of the big win Mike Ashley had in a London casino which launched his bid for Newcastle United our glorious prime minister and Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, last night agreed to a “final throw of the dice”.
"Winner takes all?" said Boris.
"D'accord," replied Ms von der Leyen.
Does 'd'accord' mean 'not on your Nellie'?