Opening the chair’s report to council this afternoon, White sought to clarify her position, after weeks of speculation that she was increasingly open to the prospect of looking to external investment to address its financial issues.

“I want to be absolutely categorical,” she said. “The John Lewis Partnership will always be an employee-owned business. No ifs, no buts. There’s absolutely no question of demutualisation.”

White did not deny the retailer was looking at external financing options, having swung to a loss in its most recent financial results and being forced to cancel its famous staff bonus for the second time in three years.

However, she insisted any external funding solution would need to be consistent with the partnership’s founding ethos.

“Any funding of the partnership has to be consistent with the 1929 and 1950 trust settlements that gifted the partnership to partners. They are as binding as the legislation that’s passed by parliament,” she said.

“The business is for the benefit of its members and the benefit of partners and that has the force of legislation. Nobody can change that and nobody should dare to change that.”

The public speculation over the financial future of the partnership has led to what White called a “debate” between staff. While White said she welcome “open and frank” discussions, she called on staff to be kinder to each other.

She said: “Partner debate. Open and frank debate is a hallmark and strength of our democracy. We have to be able to agree and disagree, but we have to be able to do so with respect and kindness. Our first loyalty is to our fellow partners and the partnership.

“I want to make today a real call for unity and a call for kindness. To live out our values in the way we relate to each other, behave with each other and the way in which we debate and exchange with each other.”

White also touched on the appointment of the partnership’s first chief executive Nish Kankiwala. White said Kankiwala’s appointment would “speed the return to profit and, most importantly, speed the return to higher pay and greater return to partners that we all want to see”.

She also said the appointment of a chief executive allowed her to “fulfil the chairman’s role as it was always envisaged”.

White’s comments come ahead of a ‘holding to account session’ on White’s vision for the retailer, with some council members wanting a secret ballot amounting to a vote of confidence in the chair’s leadership of John Lewis.