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Brexit: ‘Important day’ for trade deal talks as Michel Barnier cancels EU meeting | Politics News

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EU and Union flags belonging to both anti-Brexit and pro-Brexit activists, fly outside the Houses of Parliament in London on October 22, 2019, as MPs begin debating the second reading of the Government's European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill. - British Prime Minister Boris Johnson faces two crucial Brexit votes Tuesday that could decide if he still has a reasonable shot at securing his EU divorce by next week's deadline. The UK is entering a cliffhanger finale to a drama that has divided families and embittered politics ever since voters backed a split from Britain's 27 EU allies and trading partners in 2016. (Photo by DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS / AFP) (Photo by DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP via Getty Images)

Talks on a post-Brexit trade deal with the EU are at a “critical phase” as they go down to the wire in London.

Brussels’ chief negotiator Michel Barnier did not head back home on Friday morning as some expected, and a briefing he was meant to hold for EU diplomats was cancelled.

He was tight-lipped as he headed back in for a fresh day of discussions, only telling reporters it was an “important day”.

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Multiple deadlines for a deal have come and gone

That signals a deal is still possible, after Sky News was told that Thursday’s talks “did not go well”.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s deputy spokesman admitted that “time is in very short supply” and “we’re at a very difficult point in the talks”.

EDINBURGH - NOVEMBER 11: Members of the public walk past a window display at Harvey Nichols on November 11, 2020 in Edinburgh, Scotland. Retailers have warned of a retail and hospitality Christmas trade catastrophe, due to the Coronavirus restrictions which are jeopardising hundreds of jobs. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
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The UK’s new relationship with the EU will start on 1 January 2021

Conversations have dragged on late into the evening several times this week, with sandwiches and takeaways seen being delivered.

With less than a month to go until the moment where the UK will either fall into a no-deal trading relationship with the EU or enter a new relationship, the pressure is on.

The UK left the EU on 31 January 2020 – but is in a “transition period” for the rest of the year and has followed many of the same rules and held on to the benefits of membership apart from political representation.

That was designed to limit disruption, so citizens and businesses only had to prepare for one change on 1 January 2021.

But both sides said they wanted these negotiations over by mid-October and constant talk of a pressing deadline has seen discussions pushed closer to the cliff edge.

Freight lorries wait on the quayside to board a ferry, as a DFDS ferry arrives at the Port of Dover, in Dover on the south coast of England on June 12, 2020. - Britain will apply "light-touch" border checks on goods from the European Union when the Brexit transition period ends this year so as to help firms hit by the coronavirus crisis
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The UK is continuing to follow most EU rules under the transition period

Charles Michel, head of the European Council, did not even set a deadline of 10 December – when EU leaders are due to gather for a summit – when asked by a journalist if that was the latest point a deal could be struck by.

“It’s unfortunate that it took longer than planned but we’re still currently negotiating and Michel Barnier is leading the negotiations, so we’ll see over the next few days what the next steps are,” he said in a briefing on Friday.

Alok Sharma, the business secretary, said earlier that “we are at a critical phase”.

“It is fair to say that we are in a difficult phase, there are some tricky issues still to be resolved,” he admitted.

Alok Sharma not committing to amount of vaccine entering the UK by end of 2020
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Alok Sharma said there were still ‘tricky issues to be resolved’

The issue preoccupying negotiators this week is believed to have been the EU’s demand for what is known as a “level playing field”.

This concerns the issue of state subsidies and standards which could seriously affect competition once the transition ends.

Mr Barnier was due to brief 27 national envoys to Brussels on Friday by video conference.

But a spokesperson for the group, Sebastian Fischer, confirmed the meeting would not go ahead “due to the ongoing intensive negotiations in London”.

He added: “Keep your fingers crossed and stay tuned!”

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Boohoo Group set to acquire collapsed Debenhams department store chain | Business News

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Boohoo Group set to acquire collapsed Debenhams department store chain | Business News

Online fashion retailer Boohoo Group is set to acquire troubled department store chain Debenhams.

The cut-price deal will result in the closure of Debenhams’ remaining stores, according to a report in the Financial Times which has been confirmed by Sky News.

The purchase price is expected to be about £50m, the newspaper said.

Both companies declined to comment.

It comes just days after Debenhams administrators FRP Advisory said they were still in talks with “a number of third parties regarding the sale of all or parts of the business”.

At the time, they announced that six stores would not reopen, including the flagship Oxford Street shop in central London.

The 242-year-old department store started a liquidation process last month after failing to secure a last-minute rescue sale.

Debenhams has been in administration since April last year but its problems pre-date the coronavirus crisis that has hurt so many high street retailers.

For much of its history, Debenhams was highly profitable and was an established anchor tenant on many UK high streets and shopping centres.

In the 1950s, Debenhams had 110 stores, making it the country’s largest department store group.

It listed on the London stock market for the third time in 2006, following a spell in private equity ownership that proved lucrative for CVC Capital Partners and TPG but which left its balance sheet saddled with what proved to be unsustainable debts.

And while customers increasingly moved their shopping online, Debenhams was opening new stores as recently as 2017 and its large physical presence came with high costs – rising rents, business rates and maintenance.

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Hollywood Bowl faces being skittled by investors in pay row | Business News

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Hollywood Bowl faces being skittled by investors in pay row | Business News

The boardroom pay chief at Hollywood Bowl is facing a shareholder backlash this week after the company decided to ignore the coronavirus crisis in its decision about incentive payouts to top executives.

Sky News has learnt that Hollywood Bowl has been trying to appease top investors in recent days in order to prevent an embarrassing revolt at its annual general meeting on Friday.

Institutions have been angered by the tenpin bowling operator’s move to assess executives’ performance under a long-term incentive scheme until February, rather than September, 2020.

Like other leisure groups, Hollywood Bowl was forced to close its 64 UK sites – which also trade under the AMF and Puttstars mini-golf brands – for much of last year because of the pandemic.

The company’s decision to move the goalposts in relation to its LTIP has, however, infuriated investors which supported the company by injecting nearly £11m in a share placing last year.

Hollywood Bowl also received taxpayer funding through the furlough scheme, while shareholders were hit by the suspension of its dividend.

The change to the share scheme performance period meant that targets were met in full, paying out 81% of the maximum on a pro rata basis.

If the plan was assessed across the originally planned period concluding in September, it would not have paid out at all.

Hollywood Bowl’s decision to “exercise discretion” by shortening the performance period risks inflaming tensions around boardroom pay, with companies such as the publisher Future and cinema operator Cineworld also in the line of fire.

The tenpin bowling group’s shares have slumped by nearly a third over the last year, leaving it with a market capitalisation of just over £320m.

Institutional Shareholder Services (ISS), an influential proxy adviser, has recommended that shareholders vote against both Hollywood Bowl’s remuneration report and the re-election of non-executive director Claire Tiney, who chairs the pay committee.

“While shareholders will note that awards will be subject to a two year holding period and continuous employment, they may question whether such payments are appropriate, given the company’s circumstances, the government help received, furloughing 98.6% of staff (it will be noted that unlike the case in other companies, the directors did not reduce their salaries to reflect reductions for the furloughed staff, but deferred a portion of their salaries until October 2020) and suspending dividends,” ISS said.

“It may therefore be questioned how the payment of awards to directors is commensurate with experience of other stakeholders.”

In a statement, a Hollywood Bowl spokeswoman said its board had “received external advice to ensure that its remuneration policy strikes the right balance between the interests of shareholders and the ability to incentivise and retain senior management, which is undoubtedly in the best interests of all of our stakeholders”.

“The board’s new holding conditions on the LTIPs vesting further align management to shareholder interests while recognising that management comfortably exceeded the challenging EPS targets set in 2017 prior to the pandemic, and the significant shareholder value created by since IPO.

“No new LTIP targets are being set until the board has greater visibility on outlook.”

A source close to the company said its management had delivered a £1.4m profit for the financial year despite the nationwide lockdowns and COVID-19 operating restrictions.

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Asos emerges as surprise frontrunner to clinch TopShop crown | Business News

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Asos emerges as surprise frontrunner to clinch TopShop crown | Business News

Asos, the online fashion retailer, has emerged as the surprise frontrunner to buy TopShop from the administrators to Sir Philip Green’s former high street empire.

Sky News has learnt that Asos has moved into pole position to buy the brand for more than £250m, days after a consortium led by Next withdrew from the race.

If successful, it may renew fears for the future of most of TopShop’s workforce, given Asos’s status as a pure-play digital retailer.

Asos is not holding any talks about buying TopShop stores, according to insiders, although it is also keen to acquire Arcadia’s Miss Selfridge brand alongside TopShop and TopMan.

A source close to Asos cautioned on Saturday night that a deal had not been struck and that there was no certainty that an agreement would be reached to acquire one of Britain’s best-known clothing brands.

Asos is competing against rivals including Boohoo; the American retailer Authentic Brands Group, which is working in tandem with JD Sports Fashion; and Shein, a Chinese fashion group.

Asda, which is itself in the process of being taken over by the petrol stations giant EG Group and private equity firm TDR Capital, is also said to have been among the bidders during the process.

A deal could be struck by the end of the month, although a person close to another bidder warned that the situation remained “fluid” and could yet result in another outcome than an acquisition by Asos.

Other parties remain in talks with Deloitte, although none are said to have the logic that Asos possesses because of its existing wholesale relationship with TopShop and the strategic importance of its growing presence in the US market.

Earlier this week, Next and its partner, Davidson Kempner Capital Management, a US investment firm, pulled out of the sale process, citing the elevated price expectations of Arcadia Group’s administrator, Deloitte.

A separate process is being run by Deloitte, which was appointed as administrator to Arcadia in November, for the group’s other brands.

Up to 13,000 jobs are at risk from Arcadia’s collapse, with brands including Evans, Wallis and Outfit seen as less likely to attract bidders.

The demise of Sir Philip’s empire follows the failure of retailers such as Cath Kidston, Oasis and Warehouse and Debenhams as the coronavirus crisis has exacerbated the financial pain being experienced across the British high street.

It is Arcadia’s appointment of administrators that is likely to emerge as the most enduring symbol of the pandemic’s impact on the economy.

Sir Philip bought the high street group in 2002 for £850m, and just three years later paid what remains one of the largest-ever dividends – £1.2bn – to Arcadia’s registered owner, Lady Christina.

For years, he was feted as a high street colossus, advising David Cameron on public sector waste during his period as prime minister.

In 2012, he sold a 25% stake in TopShop’s immediate holding company to Leonard Green & Partners, a private equity firm, valuing the fashion chain at £2bn.

Sir Philip was later to buy it back for just $1.

Asos and Deloitte declined to comment on Saturday night.

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