Sir Ken must be gutted. Nobody thought Morrisons' bid for Safeway would be among those referred to the Competition Commission. But, once again, the OFT has left us baffled by its decision-making prowess. Little wonder that many are calling its advice to Patricia Hewitt a cop-out. Nevertheless, the fact that all the major retail bidders are now facing a monopolies probe does at least mean the competition watchdog has a great opportunity to examine the structure of the supermarket sector ­ and decide how it should be shaped in the future.
The Commission's decision will clearly affect consumers, the economy, retailers and, of course, the UK supplier base. But I find it hard to believe the Commission will support any major structural upheaval ­ particularly a four into three scenario. After all, its exhaustive ­ and exhausting ­ inquiry into the supermarket sector a few years ago concluded any further consolidation would be a bad thing. I cannot see what has happened since that could have changed that thinking.
So perhaps Sir Ken will emerge victorious from the Safeway probe in five months' time. By then, of course, it may well be too late. The OFT's decision means Philip Green is in pole position to acquire Safeway. And if he puts his money where his mouth is, Green should be able to come up with a deal compelling enough to persuade Safeway shareholders not to wait for possible bids from the retailers caught up in the Commission's inquiry.
But if Green did win, would that be good news for the industry? Would Safeway prosper under him? I am not sure. Let's face it: the current management could hardly be called shabby. And if they have found it tough to make progress with the business, I struggle to see how someone from the rag trade could do any better, especially if he's unable to sell stores to help fund his plans.
Still, Green winning is infinitely preferable to a situation in which nobody buys Safeway and it ends up limping along with a severely crippled business. Unfortunately, I think the OFT's ridiculous decision to refer Morrisons has now increased the likelihood of this Doomsday scenario becoming a reality.