Baroness Bra Michelle Mone, the £200m PPE deal and the denials that don’t add up: GUY ADAMS investigates after the Tory peer’s mansion is raided by anti-fraud police
Lady (Michelle) Mone OBE, as she styles herself on social media, lives in a vast U-shaped manor house on the Isle of Man which her estate agent recently described as ‘possibly one of the finest homes in the British Isles’.
The nine-bed pile boasts a games room, bar, home cinema, air-conditioned library, plus a ‘pool and spa complex which features two treatment rooms, a relaxing spa lounge, sauna, steam room, Jacuzzi, plunge pool, tropical spa, male and female changing rooms, tanning studio and state-of-the-art gym’.
Outside are 154 acres of gardens and grounds, taking in a tennis court, helipad and ‘amphitheatre’, plus a long carriage drive ending next to a bronze fountain where the 50-year-old Tory peer once posed for Hello! magazine with second husband Doug Barrowman, a billionaire six years her senior, next to a red Ferrari.
On the morning of Wednesday, April 27, a very different selection of vehicles could be seen crunching down the gravel leading to the Glasgow-born entrepreneur’s residence. It was a convoy of police cars, coming as part of an operation to execute simultaneous search warrants on four properties on the Isle of Man, plus another two in London, in raids that the local constabulary described as being ‘in support of’ an ongoing fraud investigation by the National Crime Agency (NCA).
PPE puzzle: Baroness Mone with her second husband, billionaire businessman Doug Barrowman
All six addresses have links to either Lady Mone — who was reportedly present at the house — or her husband. One is a Belgravia home she uses as her London base, while another is a Soho office to which several of their companies are registered.
A third is Knox House, an imposing office in the tax haven’s usually sleepy capital Douglas from which the couple conduct business.
Witnesses saw a dozen police cars, park along the street at breakfast time. Plain-clothes officers, wearing armoured vests, then gathered in a huddle before swooping on both the front and rear doors. Detectives are understood to have seized documents, computers, electronic equipment and mobile phones. No arrests were made, but it was reported that Lady Mone is likely to be interviewed about their contents.
It marks a dramatic escalation in a controversy that has dogged her existence for 18 months, so far spawning not just a wide-ranging NCA probe but an official inquiry by the House of Lords Commissioners for Standards. At stake are tens of millions of pounds, along with the jealously guarded reputation of this famously sharp-elbowed businesswoman, who once rarely missed a chance to wax lyrical about her soap-opera life’s remarkable trajectory but is now refusing to comment on developments, beyond maintaining that she has done nothing wrong.
Nicknamed ‘Baroness Bra’ after making her fortune in the lingerie trade, she famously used her maiden speech in Parliament, having been ennobled by David Cameron, to remind her ermine-clad colleagues: ‘I grew up in a tenement flat in the east end of Glasgow with no bath or shower and only a cupboard for a bedroom.’
Recent events have, however, seen her disappear from view. Lady Mone’s Instagram and Twitter accounts, on which she once posted near-daily motivational messages and pearls of wisdom, along with pictures of herself on yachts and beaches and in a variety of luxury properties, have been eerily silent since early January.
She last uttered a word in the Lords in March 2020 and has turned up to vote on just eight days in the past year. Her only public statements have been issued in writing by an aggressive law firm seeking — with, it must be said, mixed success — to curtail news coverage of her woes.
Lady (Michelle) Mone OBE, as she styles herself on social media, lives in a vast U-shaped manor house on the Isle of Man which her estate agent recently described as ‘possibly one of the finest homes in the British Isles’
This unfortunate fall from grace revolves around Lady Mone’s purported links to a company named PPE Medpro, which at the height of the first Covid lockdown in June 2020 won two contracts worth more than £200 million to supply protective equipment to the UK Government, without any competitive tender.
One was for £81 million worth of face masks. The other saw the firm paid £122 million to supply 25 million sterilised gowns to the NHS.
With a global shortage of PPE, prices had soared, meaning vast amounts of money could be made by companies able to source it. The gowns were, for example, manufactured in China for £46 million, or just over a third of the price the UK Government was offering.
But the deal later turned sour amid a disagreement over whether the products were fit for purpose.
Specifically, when the sterilised gowns arrived, the NHS carried out a quality inspection. It was swiftly decided that the gowns were unsuitable for use. It then began trying to recover the tens of millions in public money that it had already paid the company.
PPE Medpro insists the products were delivered ‘fully in accordance with the agreed contract’ and refused to play ball. Both sides are currently in mediation.
So far, so questionable. But what would elevate this commercial dispute into a major political scandal were revelations about the role Lady Mone played in setting up the ill-fated transaction.
It emerged that PPE Medpro had been founded by a man named Anthony Page, on May 12, 2020, just a month before it won the huge contract. Mr Page, who had no obvious prior experience in the medical supplies industry, was a director of Knox Group, a finance firm owned by Mr Barrowman that helps ‘ultra-high-net-worth individuals’ look after their loot.
Intriguingly, he had also been a director of MGM Media, a company belonging to Lady Mone that manages her ‘brand’, quitting the business on the day that PPE Medpro was founded. He was also a director of LM Yachts, a business that owns a £5 million luxury yacht named Lady M that she sailed around the coast of Croatia in August that year. Furthermore, PPE Medpro and several of Lady Mone’s firms — including a design company called Michelle Mone Interiors Unlimited and a flexible office business, Neospace — turned out to have been registered to exactly the same London address.
Asked what was going on, the Tory peer instructed lawyers to insist she had nothing whatsoever to do with the troubled PPE firm.
‘Baroness Mone has no comment as she has no role or involvement in PPE Medpro,’ they claimed, adding during a six-week correspondence with the Guardian that she was ‘not connected in any way with PPE Medpro’ and that ‘any suggestion of an association’ would be ‘both inaccurate and misleading’.
Her rise from poverty — she left school at 15 with no qualifications — via the lingerie firm Ultimo, which she founded with ex-husband Michael in 1997, built into a £50million business and sold in 2014, was also exhaustively chronicled in a warts-and-all memoir. It told (among other things) how she spiked his coffee with laxatives, trashed his £100,000 Porsche and cut up his clothes after she realised he was cheating with a work colleague named Sam
Except there was a strong association between Lady Mone and PPE Medpro. Specifically, she was the person who initially referred the company to the Government.
We know this because last November — some 13 months after her denial was issued — the Department of Health revealed that Lady Mone had reached out to Lord Agnew, a Tory health minister and fellow member of the Upper House, to recommend the firm in May 2020. It was then listed in the so-called ‘VIP lane’ that prioritised certain businesses for approved contacts.
Asked how she squared this revelation with her previous statement, the peer again issued a statement via lawyers.
It declared that ‘Baroness Mone does not deny the simple act of referring PPE Medpro as a potential supplier of PPE to the office of Lord Agnew’ but described it as a ‘very simple, solitary and brief step’ and insisted ‘she did not do anything further with respect to PPE Medpro’.
That claim held water until January this year when the Guardian published leaked WhatsApp messages from June 2020 in which Baroness Mone discussed both the sizing of gowns and the ins and outs of the purchasing process with staff at PPE Medpro.
According to the newspaper, the exchange saw a person in the supply chain ask ‘Lady Michelle’ about required sizes for the gowns. In reply, she apparently stated: ‘We are just about to take off in the jet. The sizes are in the order. We are waiting for the official PO [purchase order], this should come in today.’ Moments later, she appears to add: ‘They tell you not to start until you have this PO.’
In response, she again instructed lawyers, this time to claim that the report was ‘grounded entirely on supposition and speculation and not based on accuracy’.
Be that as it may, the Lords standards commissioners launched an investigation into her ‘alleged involvement in procuring contracts for PPE Medpro leading to potential breaches’ of three provisions of the Lords code of conduct, which requires peers to publicly register ‘all relevant interests’ and prohibits them from lobbying for a company or person in which they have ‘a financial interest’. She denies breaking the code.
Then, two months ago, the message that Baroness Mone had sent to Lord Agnew was made public. It appeared to show that her prior version of events was more or less entirely untrue. This ‘smoking gun’ email had been sent on May 8, 2020, to Lord Agnew’s private account, cc-ing Michael Gove.
It read: ‘I hope this email finds you well, Michael Hove [sic] has asked to urgently contact you. We have managed to source PPE masks though [sic] my team in Hong Kong. They have managed to secure 100,000pcs per day of KN95 [face masks] which is equivalent to N95 or FFP2.
‘In order to commit to this 100,000pcs per day could you please get back to me asap as freight will also need to be secured. Hope to see you in the House of Lords when we get out of lockdown. Kindest Regards, Michelle.’
So, Baroness Mone was describing a firm she claimed to have nothing to do with as ‘my team’. And discussing, in technical detail, a product sold by a business she had denied having any links to.
Asked to explain, she issued yet another statement via lawyers saying there was ‘nothing new’ or ‘sinister’ in the new emails. The statement accused the Guardian of having a ‘deliberate and vexatious interpretation of them, characterising them in a wholly negative manner’.
It’s not the only tricky piece of documentary evidence to emerge, either. For example the Financial Times recently obtained an email sent by Jacqui Rock, chief commercial officer for NHS Test and Trace, to government colleagues on February 10, 2021, suggesting that Lady Mone was lobbying them nine months after her initial contact with Lord Agnew seeking yet more lucrative supply deals, this time for Covid tests.
The email stated: ‘Baroness Mone is going to Michael Gove and Matt Hancock today as she is incandescent with rage on the way she believes Medpro have been treating [sic].’
Ms Rock explained that Lady Mone believed the company was being ‘fobbed off’ in relation to the validation process for its Covid testing technology. Ms Rock told her colleagues that ‘this is going to blow up today’.
This time, Baroness Mone issued a legal statement saying she was ‘neither an investor, director or shareholder in any way associated with PPE Medpro’.
We must, of course, take these various denials at face value. However, her seeming reluctance to discuss this particular chapter of her business career seems in stark contrast to the vigorous manner in which she has promoted other entrepreneurial efforts, via social media, speaking appearances and occasional turns on reality TV.
Her rise from poverty — she left school at 15 with no qualifications — via the lingerie firm Ultimo, which she founded with ex-husband Michael in 1997, built into a £50million business and sold in 2014, was also exhaustively chronicled in a warts-and-all memoir.
It told (among other things) how she spiked his coffee with laxatives, trashed his £100,000 Porsche and cut up his clothes after she realised he was cheating with a work colleague named Sam.
Then there was the time she dropped Sir Rod Stewart’s wife Penny Lancaster as an Ultimo model and hired Rachel Hunter, his ex-wife, instead. The musician called her a ‘manipulative cow’. Lady Mone admitted she did it for the publicity.
By the time she had been ennobled by Mr Cameron, her PR stock was sufficiently high for her to lead a government review on entrepreneurship, with then work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith declaring: ‘There’s no one I can think of that’s better qualified to help young entrepreneurs from deprived backgrounds to turn a good idea into a flourishing business.’
While her various businesses had spawned a number of interesting employment tribunals — in 2014, a senior employee, Scott Kilday, won a case for unfair dismissal after it emerged his office was bugged and the ‘very difficult’ Lady Mone listened to the tapes for signs of disloyalty — her reputation remained relatively buoyant.
As recently as late 2020, her marriage to Mr Barrowman, a divorced business tycoon she’d met the previous autumn, was the subject of approving notices in the social pages. They described a £1.5 million ceremony attended by their seven children involving oyster bars, lobster buffets and endless Laurent-Perrier champagne.
The PPE Medpro affair — and the associated smell of political scandal — changed all that, as has an undignified public spat that played out in recent months involving one-time friend Richard Lynton-Jones, who is of Indian heritage.
They appear to have fallen out following a fatal yacht crash in Monaco, after which Lady Mone sent him a text saying he was ‘a waste of a white man’s skin’. When details of that emerged, her lawyers issued a statement saying: ‘Baroness Mone is 100% not a racist. Baroness Mone and her husband have built over 15 schools in Africa in the past three years.’
She has nonetheless been interviewed under police caution over the dispute.
What her next police interview will revolve around is unclear, because the NCA has not commented on the nature of its fraud investigation involving PPE Medpro or disclosed who may be under suspicion.
Yet the more this sorry saga rumbles on, the more one is given to wonder whether ‘Baroness Bra’ ought in future to be nicknamed ‘Baroness Brazen’.
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