How the great and the good's Lord 'Tony' became Green's patsy: QC was reluctant to act when BHS was sold for £1 to a thrice-bankrupt
Lord Grabiner is chairman of Arcadia and non-executive chairman of Green’s Taveta Investments, which owns the Arcadia group
Sir Philip Green was in high spirits over lunch, with good financial results to report to guests in the boardroom of the West End headquarters of his Arcadia fashion empire.
‘Tony,’ he would call out from time to time, ‘can you pour drinks ... Tony, can you get some ... Tony would you ... ’ With an air that one of the guests that day describes as ‘subservient’, Tony glided around doing as asked.
This, though, might come as a shock to Tony’s friends, who know him as Lord (Anthony) Grabiner, QC, one of the most dazzling – and highest-paid – stars in the legal world. ‘It felt uncomfortably like a master-pupil relationship,’ recalls the guest. ‘Green was treating him as though he was some kind of assistant.’
But then, Sir Philip – dubbed Sir Shifty – was issuing luncheon requests based on his status as having billions in the bank, whereas Lord Grabiner, who has been on his company payroll for years, has a brilliant legal mind which earns him a mere £3million-plus a year.
Lord Grabiner is chairman of Arcadia and non-executive chairman of Green’s Taveta Investments, which owns the Arcadia group.
How consistent the fawning behaviour of Grabiner during that boardroom lunch is with a damning judgment made earlier this week by a committee of MPs in their report on Green’s money-guzzling stewardship of BHS. They said Grabiner provided a ‘veneer of establishment credibility’ to a firm Green treated as ‘his own personal empire’.
They noted Grabiner’s impotence – or reluctance – to do anything about Green’s sale of the company for £1 to a thrice-bankrupt, resulting in 11,000 employees being thrown on the scrap heap and 20,000 pension scheme members left worrying about a £571million deficit.
Lord Grabiner, we should not forget, is one of the greatest of the good. He is Master of Clare College, Cambridge, was chairman of the London School of Economics for almost a decade, is a governor of St Paul’s, one of the finest boys’ schools in the country, and a Deputy High Court Judge. How sad that this giant figure should be seen by so many as the virtual lackey of a man who left school at 16 with no qualifications to speak of.
This is the man who told the parliamentarians he had never heard of BHS buyer Dominic Chappell, and had no idea he was a former bankrupt until he read it in the newspapers. For a chairman of the board, the MPs savagely declared, Lord Grabiner had a ‘remarkably docile attitude’ and was ‘complacent’. There was ‘meagre evidence’ that anyone ever challenged or overrode Green’s decisions.
For Grabiner, 71, who achieved eminence from very humble beginnings as the son of a fur cutter in London’s then impoverished Hackney in east London, the pain of the MPs’ excoriating words must be immense.
‘Grabiner loves accolades – he’s used to them,’ says one legal colleague. ‘I honestly wonder if he will ever completely get over this.’ One must also wonder whether he accepts as just, the devastating shaming of his friend Green as the ‘unacceptable face of capitalism’.
MPs noted Grabiner’s impotence – or reluctance – to do anything about Green’s sale of the company for £1 to a thrice-bankrupt, resulting in 11,000 employees being thrown on the scrap heap
For he almost hero-worships Green, describing him as ‘constantly stimulating’. It would be bad enough if Grabiner were just another lawyer on the make. But he is a megastar, described in the legal stud-books as ‘the most pre-eminent and highly experienced silk at the Commercial Bar’, who has ‘judges deferring to his gravitas’.
He is even on the board of Goldman Sachs, one of the renowned City firms criticised for giving a ‘badge of legitimacy’ to the £1 sale of BHS. A decade ago, he was charging up to £3,000 an hour for his services. His roll-call of clients stretches from the late crooked Mirror newspaper tycoon Robert Maxwell (to whom Green was likened by MPs’ committee chairman Frank Field), to Liverpool Football Club during an ownership battle, to Rupert Murdoch, on whose behalf he led the probe into phone-hacking at News Corp as chairman of its ‘management and standards’ committee.
Sir Philip Green, the former owner of BHS, who sold the company for £1 to a thrice-bankrupt
Management and standards, it must be said, seem to have been in short supply around Green – although, of course, he has done nothing illegal. But just how important is money to Lord Grabiner, who lives in a £10million house in St John’s Wood, north-west London, with his wife Jane, a Cheshire doctor’s daughter?
Typical of the super-rich, he describes talk about money and earnings as ‘irritating’.
With breath-taking insouciance, he told a Treasury committee of MPs when he led an inquiry into allegations that the Bank of England had turned a blind eye to manipulation of foreign exchange markets, that he didn’t know how much he was earning because he did not deal with the ‘grubby issue’ of pay negotiations. But the fact is that Grabiner enjoys being in a circle of big boys, the rich and influential, most of whom have hired his penetrating legal talents at one time or another.
He is a close chum of the bouffant-haired businessman-restaurateur Richard Caring, owner of The Ivy, Annabel’s and Le Caprice. Caring is close to Green and was a major beneficiary of generous dividends paid by BHS in the early days of the tycoon’s ownership, receiving £93million.
Caring also used to own Britain’s most prestigious golf club, Wentworth, and made Grabiner, a modest weekend golfer, an honorary executive director. When Caring sold the club two years ago to a Chinese firm, it wanted to drive up fees to drastically cut membership from 4,000 to 800, making it one of the most exclusive clubs on earth.
The aim was to introduce a mandatory one-off payment of £100,000 and a doubling of the annual membership fee to £16,000. But was it legal? Naturally, they turned to Lord Grabiner – who said it was. The club captain described this as a ‘stab in the back’. To Lord Grabiner, it was just business.
He has three sons and a daughter, only one of whom has followed him into law – but intriguingly works for Linklaters, the firm which advised Arcadia about the sale of BHS and was condemned for failing to carry out due diligence on the buyer.
Of course, Grabiner has powerful political links, too.
There was a period – certainly in the days when Tony Blair and Gordon Brown led Labour – when some saw him as a potential Labour Lord Chancellor. To have accepted the post would, of course, have meant a huge cut in his commercial earnings.
Lord Grabiner was on the board of Goldman Sachs, one of the renowned City firms criticised for giving a ‘badge of legitimacy’ to the £1 sale of BHS
When Blair ennobled the QC in 1999, Grabiner was chairman of the governors of the London School of Economics, where he studied law. Just a few months later, the ex-grammar school boy unveiled a bust to an alumna of the LSE – Cherie Blair – describing her as ‘a very distinguished old girl [who] has been a tremendous help with fund-raising. I have got to know her well.’ How very cosy!
The definitive champagne socialist gave up the chairmanship of the LSE in 2007, a year before Saif Gaddafi, son of the Libyan dictator, was awarded a PhD which he would never have achieved without internal help. In gratitude, a cheque for £1.5million for the LSE arrived from the Gaddafi International Charity.
However, Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader was a big problem for Grabiner. He resigned the party whip in the Lords, saying: ‘I have nothing in common whatever with Mr Corbyn – and I don’t believe we are ever going to win an election.’
But there’s no sign of ‘Tony’ giving up his work for his friend Green. Indeed, it’s almost a family affair – his first cousin Ian is Arcadia’s chief executive officer.
Besides, as Lord Grabiner has said without any hint of irony: ‘If there were more Philip Greens, there would be a lot more efficiency.’ At what – throwing people out of work and denying them their pensions?
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