Crony capitalism in the House of Lords is not a good look for Britain. Yet during the Covid crisis, there appeared to be a strong case that political access allowed privileged individuals to extract a great deal of wealth from the state. On Wednesday, the Guardian produced astonishing evidence for those wishing to prosecute this argument. It suggested that Michelle Mone, a Tory peer, her husband, Douglas Barrowman, and her children secretly received £65m originating from the profits of PPE Medpro, a company that was awarded large government contracts during the pandemic after she recommended it to ministers. If capitalism during a national emergency can be so easily rigged to favour connected insiders then the country is in trouble.
The government lubricated such questionable deal-making by setting up a “VIP lane” into which suppliers recommended by politicians or officials were fast-tracked. PPE Medpro’s business was referred to the VIP lane after Lady Mone contacted the ministers Michael Gove and Lord Agnew to offer help in May 2020. A few weeks later, the government contracted to pay the firm £203m for protective equipment for the NHS. A court later said that the VIP lane was unlawful. Perhaps worse, it was ineffective. The government is now in dispute over millions of surgical gowns supplied by PPE Medpro that it says were not up to scratch. PPE Medpro insists its products passed inspections.
Lady Mone was appointed as a lifetime peer by David Cameron in 2015. Her arrival on the Tory benches raised eyebrows, given her previous support for Labour. Others questioned her business credentials, given her lingerie business had lost money (it went under in 2018). But the Tory peer was undeterred, selling jewellery on a home shopping channel and promoting herself as a cryptocurrency expert. Lady Mone’s conspicuous success has been hard to miss recently, with a lavish lifestyle of luxury yachting, an expanding property portfolio, a honeymoon in the Indian Ocean and a wedding featured in Hello! magazine. The peer, however, denies becoming fantastically rich by profiting from a company she lobbied to be awarded state contracts.
Lady Mone is being investigated by the Lords commissioner for standards after being accused of failing to declare an interest in PPE Medpro. The firm is also being pursued by HM Revenue and Customs, apparently for unpaid taxes. It says that it will “pay in full” if any outstanding monies are owed. The Mone family properties have been raided by the National Crime Agency, which is investigating potential fraud relating to the company. The National Audit Office thought that £1.4bn of spending through the VIP lane is “at risk” of not achieving value for money.
The whole episode reeks of a contempt for government. Peerages should not be just a means to personal – or ideological – ends. Neither should they be doled out to wealthy business people in return for bankrolling political parties. The Lords has become imprudently bloated, now with over 800 peers. Leaks suggest that Sir Keir Starmer will abolish the upper house and replace it with a new elected chamber as part of plans to “restore trust in politics”. Many peers perform a valuable role by calmly scrutinising and amending legislation that has often been rushed through the Commons. However, the revelations about Lady Mone show just how much strain the upper house and British state institutions have been put under by the current political dispensation. Moral corruption at the heart of the British parliament is a morbid symptom for liberal democracy itself.