This may appear to be more of a stretch than a Sports Direct cycling costume around the torso of the firm’s billionaire founder, but Mike Ashley could be viewed as the City’s answer to Daniel Day-Lewis.
Like the great thespian, Ashley grants his public only rare sightings, but when he trots out on to the public stage he almost always delivers a virtuoso performance.
His track record will be in the mind of retail watchers this week as the tycoon is billed to return to the scene of some of Sports Direct’s finest displays – Westminster – where he is due to give evidence to parliament’s housing, communities and local government select committee on “high streets and town centres in 2030”.
It is almost irrelevant what the topic is (although this is a perfectly worthy one), as Ashley is by far the standout name in a cast list of six, which includes fellow panellists who may not have even heard of themselves.
They will surely be overshadowed by one of the titans of the high street, considering his capacity to turn it on when folk are watching.
There was the 2008 video of him downing a beer at a football match, which resulted in the footage going viral and Ashley being summoned for a chat with the rozzers, as drinking alcohol in a Premier League stadium in view of the pitch is banned. (Ashley said he thought he’d been necking a non-alcoholic beer.)
There was the 2017 high court case that recalled a Sports Direct drinking competition, including full details of Ashley vomiting into a fireplace. And then, of course, who can forget his performances from 2016 (still considered classics of the genre), including a series of confrontations with parliament’s business select committee, which was investigating the retailer’s treatment of workers.
Ashley spent months saying he wasn’t going to show up to any hearing, prompting MPs to take the unusual step of issuing a summons. On the day, he sauntered into the committee room, initially attempting to stare the committee chairman down – only to quickly give in to temptation and start sounding off, finally admitting that his company had been breaking the law by failing to pay workers at his Shirebrook warehouse the minimum wage.
No matter! Ashley’s agent quickly found him a new role, casting the billionaire as a man of the people. Three months later, an open day at his notorious warehouse gave the boss the chance to demonstrate how the firm’s practice of searching workers down to the waistband on their underpants was not such a big deal.
While helping to re-enact the security procedure, Ashley’s portrayal of a minimum-wage worker was, by any measure, groundbreaking. Turning out his pockets, he produced a huge wad of fifties – going on to explain to the nation’s media how he had just visited a casino.
Which brings us to Westminster this week, where Ashley, who snapped up ailing House of Fraser and Evans Cycles this year, will play the part of a tycoon aiming to save the high street. His spokesman explained: “The MPs originally wanted somebody from House of Fraser to speak for about 15 minutes as part of a panel of four … Mike thought that wouldn’t achieve anything, so instead he demanded to go along in person for a full hour.”
“I believe politicians and landlords should be doing more to save our struggling high streets,” Ashley added, “so I intend to make the most of this opportunity to make a real difference.” He often does.