RUTH SUNDERLAND: Cheer up, City may be struggling but we’ve got M&S

Perhaps it is a slight exaggeration to say that when Marks & Spencer does well, the whole country feels better.

In a week of political turmoil and the dispiriting spectacle of former Post Office boss Paula Vennells being eviscerated for her failure to stop the persecution of innocent postmasters, at least we had M&S to cheer us up.

After years of drab fashion and dismal financial performance, it really does look as though Marks is finally back on form.

When so much of national life seems to be crumbling and dysfunctional, it’s comforting to hope we can at least count on M&S.

Shares in the retailer have risen 65 per cent in the past 12 months as investors begin to believe chairman Archie Norman and chief executive Stuart Machin have found the right formula.

Sign of the times: Marks & Spencer is providing something of an antidote to the pall surrounding the London stock market

The killer question is whether this is yet another false dawn.

As recently as 2018, when Norman warned it was on a ‘burning platform’, Marks was facing an existential crisis.

There are reasons to believe recovery is built on solid foundations this time.

The retailer has seen 12 quarters of sales growth, profits are up 58 per cent to £716m, which is more than the market was expecting, and it is paying its first dividend since 2019.

The revival is being led by food, but clothing is also doing well – so well, in some cases, that Machin is complaining about some on-trend garments selling out too fast.

Not everything is rosy. The international business is disappointing and the performance of the Ocado joint venture is falling short of hopes.

But the balance sheet is in its best shape for years, with debt down and a strong rise in free cash flow.

It stormed back into the FTSE 100 index last year after a four-year absence, and last week was the top riser in the blue chip share index.

This is all good news for investors, albeit very long-term holders are still sitting on paper losses.

Marks has a formidable army of private shareholders, but its fortunes resonate much more widely. Most of us feel we have some kind of ‘ownership’ of the company.

It is virtually synonymous with the High Street, which is why such strong emotions are provoked when the company quits a town centre.

Maybe there are a few Britons who couldn’t care less about our most venerated retailer, but I haven’t met any.

Even my husband, who loathes shopping of any kind as much as I adore it, was disappointed when he headed out to the Clapham Junction branch to buy undies only to find the shop is now entirely devoted to food.

Spousal grumpiness aside, the re-shaping of the store estate to put the right type of shop in the right location is a big part of the revival.

Marks is also providing something of an antidote to the pall surrounding the London stock market, where a string of companies have defected or chosen to float elsewhere.

The anti-London narrative, whether justified or not, has taken root. As we reported in The Mail on Sunday, even London Tunnels – a company whose ambition to turn a subterranean network used by Winston Churchill during the war into a tourist attraction screams Britishness – is now planning to float in Amsterdam.

At a time when the London stock market is so widely denigrated, it is cheering to see Marks, perhaps the most quintessentially British business in the Footsie, performing with such gusto.