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Four storeys high and the length of a football pitch, this vast steel and aluminium mega-structure has for years dominated the shipyard of luxury yacht builder Benetti at Livorno, on Italy’s Tuscan coast.With a fortune of around £3.5 billion, the owner of such High Street institutions as Topshop and Dorothy Perkins already boasts not one, but two super-yachts: the 109 ft Lionchase, on which his grown-up children Brandon and Chloe sometimes live, and the 200 ft Lioness V, his current home.

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They are a little-known group of private investors led by Dominic Chappell, a twice-discharged bankrupt former racing driver with no obvious retail experience and several county court judgments against him. Second, a form of asset stripping: taking vast amounts of cash from a failing company to enrich himself and his wife — to the eventual cost of the staff, pensioners and any businesses owed money by the firm. But that may not prevent him falling foul of the Pensions Regulator, an industry watchdog that has the power retroactively to force former business owners such as Sir Philip to plug black holes in their schemes.

‘There’s nothing wrong with people who make fortunes and sail around in expensive yachts, provided they pay taxes and don’t leave mega-holes in pension funds. He should be regarded as a pariah.’That certainly sounds like fighting talk.

And though Sir Philip has not formally commented in response, friends say he is angry and deeply upset by Field’s remarks. With regard to Sir Philip’s tax status, the friend adds: ‘His firms have paid £2 billion in direct and indirect tax in the past ten years.

A key reason, they argue, lies in the fact that during his 15 years in control of BHS, Sir Philip took more than £400 million out of the firm via special dividends paid to his wife Tina, who lives in the tax haven of Monaco.

Though perfectly legal, the tax-efficient payments meant that cash which might otherwise have been used to bolster the pension fund or, indeed, to invest more in the firm’s long-term future, was instead funnelled into the family coffers.