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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Marina Hyde

A PPE farrago, a car crash interview and a fight with the PM: Lady Mone has her foot on the gas, hasn’t she?

Doug Barrowman and Michelle Mone
‘Michelle Mone and her husband/support garment Doug Barrowman.’ Photograph: Max Mumby/Indigo/Getty Images

Draw near, readers, for these are testing times for bouncy-blow-dried plague profiteer Michelle Mone and her husband/support garment Doug Barrowman. And also, perhaps, for the Conservative figures who ennobled her ladyship, then helped her and Doug fast-track their way into providing £203m of Covid PPE, from which they cleared at least £65m in profit, even though much of the PPE was allegedly unusable.

Michelle lied repeatedly and for years about her involvement to the Guardian – which broke the story and on Sunday insisted: “That’s not a crime.” PPE Medpro and the couple are being investigated by the National Crime Agency, which – and I’m honestly just going on the title here – does maybe have something to do with crime. The Mone-Barrowmans, obviously, deny everything.

But look, let’s just get into technical terms for a second: Michelle is 5ft 9in of pure chaos, and watching Rishi Sunak whinnying feebly about “taking all these things incredibly seriously” tees up the spectacle of the prime minister and a number of other drippy male politicians further incensing this Category 5 “force of nature”, who will lash out all the way down on her well-earned fall from grace. Is that as good as taxpayers getting their money back? No. But I’ll watch.

Before we proceed, though, a recap. Can it really be only 11 years since Michelle was granting a mesmerisingly messy interview to the Sunday Times, in which she wailed rhetorically: “Why did I want to be Michelle Mone? Why did I want to start all these businesses? Why can I never be satisfied with what I’ve got?” Yes. Yes, I do believe it can.

Can it really be only six years since Mone and Barrowman were granting “their first joint interview” to Hello! magazine, standing in formalwear in front of their Isle of Man McMansion – a Ferrari parked with gossamer insouciance just behind them, as if to say … well, as if to say GREETINGS, SHITHEADS – DID WE MENTION WE OWN A FERRARI? Again, it can. Readers of various outlets have since been invited inside the property, where decorative flourishes include a paved drive (sorry, but no) and an amphitheatre (actually hysterical). “I feel like I’m in a fairytale,” Michelle told the publication, “a beautiful dream I don’t ever want to wake up from.” Three years ago, as a belated second wedding present, she gifted Doug a gelding (I bet she did).

And so to Mone and Barrowman’s absolute disasterclass of an interview with the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg last Sunday, which came out not long after a YouTube documentary that turned out to have been paid for by Barrowman’s firm, much to the retrospective surprise and distaste of several of the experts featured therein. Choice cuts? Too many to mention. “There’s a reason why I live in the Isle of Man,” Barrowman explained to Kuenssberg. “I don’t want anyone in the press to know of any business activity or anything that I get engaged in.” Mm. On the basis of the current horror show, Doug is almost as skilled at this as he is at sourcing acceptable PPE.

Anyway: the Conservative fightback. On Monday, former Covid-era health minister Lord Bethell – one of the few people even less qualified to be in the House of Lords than Michelle, given he inherited his title – posted a screenshot of a message from Mone dated 4 October 2020. In this, she referred to “they” rather than “we” when talking about PPE Medpro.

Not sure that’s enough to let the government play the innocent. Then again, Bethell’s gambit means so much more from someone who previously claimed to have lost his phone “in early 2021”, then revised that to say he had the phone but it was defective, then revised that to say it had been given to a family member, most recently alighting on the position that he’d deleted Covid contracts messages for space, and telling the Today programme that important decisions happened via the red box system and not via phones on WhatsApp. Still, thanks for dialling in again, Lord Brains.

The summer after winning the PPE contract, Michelle posted a picture of herself abroad on a newly purchased yacht – the Lady M – accompanied by the observation: “Business isn’t easy. But it is rewarding.” Counterpoint: is it possible that business is sometimes way too easy? So many people in this country have looked at what has emerged about the way vastly lucrative Covid contracts were awarded in the panic of a deadly pandemic, and thought: who knew it was actually so easy, if only you were shameless and grasping enough? Who knew that as long as you had a hotline to the people at the top, and just a phone number for some factory, you could set yourself up as a PPE provider, having never worked in the space before, and clear millions upon millions of pounds of profits, for a load of unusable crap that might end up getting flytipped next to New Forest nature reserves and the like?

The government is always saying it wants to talk about things that matter to people, yet it simply will not talk, in public and apologetically, about the grotesque profiteering that happened during Covid. Please be aware that every time you see a Conservative MP lying that they had a “great day on the doorstep” in their constituency, what they will in fact have had is a day when people mention this issue with varying degrees of fury. The complete failure to reckon with it in any meaningful way is eroding trust in politics and political processes by the hour.

None of which is to be unrealistic about the situation the country found itself in during the Covid pandemic. Of course, it was a mad scramble to get something – anything – to protect the very people trying to care for the sick and save their lives. Of course, the process was imperfect – that is understood by most people. What can’t be understood, and should never be understood in a nation that retains any level of self-respect, is why ordinary people are somehow supposed to be forelock-tuggingly grateful to those who were already multimillionaires (and in the case of the serial tax-avoider Barrowman, reportedly a billionaire), for “helping” in this way.

What absolute rubbish. If these white knights really were so altruistic then they’d have waived the profits in the interests of civic duty, instead of rinsing the public purse beyond all imagining, for equipment that often could not even be used. I can’t believe it even needs to be said out loud, but if you made £65m pure profit for helping during the most acute national crisis, then you didn’t help – you helped yourself.

  • Marina Hyde is a Guardian columnist

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