MPs’ grilling of Sir Philip Green over BHS gave a telling insight into the multifaceted character of the man dubbed ‘king of the high street’.
Watching events unfold from inside the committee room, it was noticeable how Sir Philip flitted between being a put-upon victim of the media to irritable, hard-nosed negotiator.
The Topshop tycoon, who is known as a master deal maker, did his best to dominate his interrogators. He frequently refused to answer MPs’ questions directly and instead informed them of what question he was going to answer.
During a near six-hour session, Sir Philip revealed moments of his famous temper. While never completely boiling over, he took most offence at the suggestion that the reason BHS wasn’t sold to fellow retail tycoon Mike Ashley was his own “ego”.
That lit Sir Philip’s touch paper. “That’s disgusting… out of order,” he fired back.
The Arcadia entrepreneur also accused MPs on more than one occasion of “bullying” him. In one particularly bizarre moment, he accused MP Richard Fuller of “staring” at him in a strange way. The fact that he was being interrogated by MPs, surely meant it was reasonable that he should be stared at.
As BIS committee chair Iain Wright said at one point: “You seem a dominant personality… but seem thin-skinned over courteous questions.”
What confused MPs was the fact that Sir Philip had been portrayed as a ‘Napoleon-type’ figure by previous witnesses, somebody in control of all he surveyed, but he was choosing to portray himself as almost an onlooker who didn’t have his hands on the tiller.
“I wouldn’t even know who to phone to take money out of the bank,” he told MPs.
Green was savvy in getting in his apology early. He told the committee he wanted to apologise to “all the BHS people who have been involved with this”.
Later he even admitted he had sold BHS to the “wrong guy” in Dominic Chappell, famously a former racing driver and bankrupt with no retail experience. Sir Philip called it an “honest mistake”.
Why anyone thought it was a good idea to sell BHS to Chappell has still not really been explained. But it appears Green was sucked in by Chappell’s smooth façade as others have been and he said he was given confidence by advisers.
Like his friend Mike Ashley last week, Sir Philip on several occasions professed ignorance or amnesia when it came to details on some of the delicate issues.
As Wright said afterwards: “It was a curious mix, a contradiction of knowing the detail and then knowing nothing at all.”
Judging by the MPs’ responses to Sir Philip they are unlikely to be swayed by his performance. The devil will be in detail of the thousands of documents relating to BHS and its pension fund MPs still have to wade through.
This is a twisted pantomime whose final act is yet to be written.