Philip Clarke today had the unfortunate task of unveiling what many have described as Tesco’s worst interims for 20 years, despite a tidy rise in profits across the group.

Speaking to the gathered masses at the Nomura Building near London Bridge, Clarke at times struck a combative tone.

After too long reacting to events affecting its empire Tesco was now back setting the agenda, he said – starting with last week’s Big Price Drop, the unveiling of which arguably raised as many questions as it answered.

“It’s not smoke and there are no mirrors,” he said of the Price Drop. “We haven’t been happy with our growth for some time. We haven’t been on the front foot enough.”

Clarke vowed that the 3,000 items selected for the Drop would be cheaper than in Asda on a permanent basis. And he was dismissive of price-matching moves from the likes of Sainsbury’s.

“I can’t be arsed to argue with Sainsbury’s,” he said, to nervous smiles from his PR attendant. “I’m not getting in a fight with anybody.”

He pledged to overhaul most Tesco Extra superstores in the second half of the financial year – another “considerable investment” – and to take on additional staff to improve the shopping experience.

Meanwhile, there were conflicting signals on ranging, the final of four pillars to re-energise the UK business. Clarke said the ‘venture brands’ initiative, unveiled to much fanfare earlier this year, was “not an enormous strategy for the company [but] just another good thing we’re doing”.

Contrast that with what was said in May, when Tesco appeared to have identified a new role for itself as a “creator of valued brands”. When pushed, however, Clarke denied his comments signalled a cooling-down on the strategy.

Either way, today’s performance played well with City analysts. Shore Capital, for instance, said they were “especially pleased to see reference to ranging, service and store environment”.

And with Tesco more chipper than ever about Fresh & Easy breaking even, it’s a telling measure of its empire that the City still considers Tesco stock a far better buy than Sainsbury’s – despite the rosier numbers coming out of Holborn today.