Mary Portas versus Bill Grimsey: what a delicious spat that was.
Anyone who doubted Mary’s passion for our high streets was firmly put in their place today, notably the former chief executive of Focus DIY, who got an earful from the feisty redhead at the Retail Week conference after he accused her of shirking from her responsibilities. It really was quite thrilling, in relative retail terms, of course.
I’m on Mary’s side (and not because I’m scared of her). In fact, I had the urge to protect her, initially anyway (she quickly showed that she was very capable of looking after herself…). Bill said that Mary had created a “balloon” (her recommendations after her Government-appointed high street review) that she then left to fly away (Mary believes it’s now down to the Government to push them through). But what more exactly does Bill think she can do? Legislate? No. All Mary can do is lobby, campaign, try new ideas. That’s no different to what any of us can do. But, if we’re honest, we don’t, at least not to the extent that Mary does. And she does it amid incessant criticism. Most people would have given up by now.
So it was interesting when Bill accused her of publicity-seeking. I don’t imagine it can be much fun being publicly slated for trying to do a good thing. And if the exposure does help Mary’s bottom line (which I think is what Bill was hinting at), then who cares? Better to bring these issues to the national agenda than try to fix them alone, from your kitchen table.
And that’s partly what Mary was trying to get at during her Q&A session. She kept talking about high street “stakeholders”, which we all are, and how together we have a better chance at affecting change. She’s right. The responsibility for the future of UK high streets is our collective problem and there’s power in numbers, after all. But she certainly makes for a passionate leader, especially if the round of applauses from the audience during the verbal battle were anything to go by (poor Bill didn’t get any).