In the summer of 2021, when a traumatised Britain was enduring a third wave of Covid infections as it struggled to emerge from the pandemic, the Conservative peer Michelle Mone posted a photograph on Instagram of herself and her husband, Douglas Barrowman, in the Mediterranean. They were on their new luxury yacht, Lady M.
Mone, 51, who attained celebrity status through her bra and lingerie company, Ultimo, and was appointed to the House of Lords by David Cameron in 2015, told her followers: “Today I’m feeling reflective. I feel so grateful to be where I am, in a beautiful part of the world with the people I love the most. It wasn’t easy. There were some real challenges, both emotionally and physically.
“Business isn’t easy. But it is rewarding.”
The social media update about the sun-soaked luxury that “Lady (Michelle) Mone OBE”, as she describes herself on her social feeds, was enjoying on deck prompted an obvious question: during a global health and economic crisis, what business had she and Barrowman found that was so rewarding?
There had been speculation some months earlier that the couple’s good fortune may have had some connection to two large PPE contracts that the government awarded to a newly formed company, PPE Medpro, during Covid’s first deadly wave. The contracts were awarded via the “VIP lane” for companies recommended by Conservative MPs and peers and other politically connected people, but the government did not disclose at that time that PPE Medpro’s “VIP” had been Mone.
On paper, PPE Medpro had apparent links with Mone: the company’s directors, Anthony Page and Voirrey Coole, worked for Barrowman’s Isle of Man Knox Group, and Page had been the registered secretary of Mone’s company MGM Media, which managed her brand.
Asked in late autumn 2020, after these contracts had been awarded, if they were involved with PPE Medpro, Mone and Barrowman had emphatically denied having anything to do with it.
To emphasise the point, Page also issued a press release stating: “PPE Medpro was not awarded the contract due to company or personal connections to the government or Conservative party.”
Through the two years of scrutiny that have followed, the manner of Mone and Barrowman’s responses, almost all issued by lawyers acting on their behalf, has been striking: a series of fierce denials of “involvement” in the company, or the process through which it secured its government contracts, coupled with legal threats.
However the Guardian has chipped away at the edifice of the denials. A two-year investigation establishing the couple’s links to PPE Medpro culminates today with newly leaked documents indicating that Mone and Barrowman secretly received tens of millions of pounds originating from the company’s profits, which were sent to the Isle of Man.
The documents state that Barrowman received at least £65m in PPE Medpro profits, and transferred £29m to an offshore trust that, bank records indicate, benefited his wife and her adult children.
Contacted about the new disclosures, a lawyer for Mone said: “There are a number of reasons why our client cannot comment on these issues and she is under no duty to do so.” A lawyer who represents both Barrowman and PPE Medpro said that an ongoing investigation limited what they were able to say on these matters. He added: “For the time being we are also instructed to say that there is much inaccuracy in the portrayal of the alleged ‘facts’ and a number of them are completely wrong.”
A high-profile wedding and an ugly spat
In the autumn of 2020, months after PPE Medpro had secured the £203m Covid contracts, Mone was tussling with other considerations, including how to hold a wedding in the pandemic. In September 2020 she was forced to cancel a planned ceremony in the 13th-century chapel of St Mary Undercroft, in the Palace of Westminster.
Instead, she switched to the the Isle of Man, where there were few Covid restrictions at the time. Barrowman, her then fiance, has a sprawling U-shaped nine-bedroom home on the island. While the couple were making wedding arrangements from this base, Barrowman seems to have also been focusing on moving profits gained from PPE Medpro around various Isle of Man registered trusts, companies and accounts.
None of this was known then, despite the attention on Mone. Particularly since receiving a peerage in 2015, Mone had become a fixture in the tabloids, which titled her “Baroness Bra”. The wedding in November 2020 provided a level of glamour that was gleefully splashed across pages of papers mostly still concerned with the pandemic. Hello! magazine filled its pages with pictures of the couple’s celebrations, including shots of the bride in her designer wedding dress and Jimmy Choo heels.
After the wedding, Mone took to Instagram to thank “everyone on the Isle of Man for making our day so special”, including an opera singer and five live bands that had played during the weekend.
In December 2020, with the UK still in tier 2 and 3 Covid restrictions, Mone received a mixed public reaction to idyllic photos she posted online of the honeymoon at a five-star resort in the Maldives where, she tweeted, the couple were having “the most fantastic time”.
Just a month later, the Guardian understands, the bank Barrowman used in the Isle of Man, HSBC, was conducting an investigation into the financier’s receipt and distribution of the millions from PPE Medpro’s profits, and – the Guardian understands – decided to drop the couple as customers. HSBC declined to comment.
Publicly, however, all was blissful through the summer of 2021. Mone posted a series of perfectly posed pictures, including ones on the deck of the Lady M, with reflections on her state of contentment. “Decide what makes you happy and just go for it,” she wrote on one.
In June 2021, Mone and Barrowman garnered widespread publicity for a newly announced £18m business venture in Aberdeen, neospace, which provided office space tailored for post-Covid hybrid working. In August, almost a year after the couple are now known to have received a fortune in PPE Medpro profits, the Scottish Sun reported that Mone’s adult children had altogether spent more than £3m buying new properties in Glasgow.
Just weeks after her 50th birthday, however, the cracks started to appear in Mone and Barrowman’s carefully cultivated public image.
An ugly spat a couple of years previously with a former friend of Indian heritage was revealed by the Guardian. Mone was accused of sending him an allegedly racist message, calling him “a waste of a man’s white skin”, after a yacht crash off Monaco. Mone was interviewed under caution earlier this year, although in August the Metropolitan police confirmed that no further action would be taken.
Links to PPE Medpro revealed
The mystery around PPE Medpro was about to be broken too. For nearly 18 months the couple had constantly dismissed, denied or played down any links to the company.
However the Good Law Project, a not-for-profit campaign group, pursued a freedom of information request that led to the information commissioner ordering the government to publish the names of both the companies that had received contracts through the VIP lane and those who had referred them. When it did so, PPE Medpro was on the list, with the name of the VIP who initially referred the company to the government: “Baroness Mone”.
Confronted in November 2021 with the one inescapable fact at that time – that she had recommended the company to her fellow Tory peer Theodore Agnew, then a minister responsible for procurement – Mone’s lawyer said: “Having taken the very simple, solitary and brief step of referring PPE Medpro as a potential supplier to the office of Lord Agnew, our client did not do anything further in respect of PPE Medpro.”
The lawyer also stated that Mone had not declared the company on her Lords register of interests because “she did not benefit financially and was not connected to PPE Medpro in any capacity”.
The details of how Mone and Barrowman were linked to the company came instead from key information and documents provided by sources to the Guardian after Mone’s referral of the company became public.
In early January 2022, the Guardian revealed further details about Mone’s links to the PPE Medpro contracts. Leaked files appeared to show that, despite their constant denials, Mone and Barrowman did appear to have been secretly involved in the company. By then it had also emerged that the gowns supplied under a £122m contract had been rejected after a technical inspection and never used.
A day after the Guardian’s report, seemingly unconcerned by the revelations, Mone told her Twitter followers that she loved putting on make-up even when she had no event to attend. But it was the last time she shared her thoughts with her followers. On Instagram, too, her feed soon went quiet.
Then, in March 2022, the Guardian revealed new details of how Mone’s efforts had helped PPE Medpro secure its place in the VIP lane back in May 2020.
Her first approach to the government was to her fellow Conservative Michael Gove, who was then a Cabinet Office minister. Neither party has responded to questions about the nature of their relationship and how Gove came to be Mone’s first point of contact when offering to supply PPE to the government. She did tweet approvingly about him in 2017, writing: “Brilliant night with my colleagues at @UKHouseofLords Spent some time with @michaelgove I can honestly say,he’s mega switched on&a nice guy.”
After her approach to Gove in the weeks after the UK’s first lockdown, Mone contacted Agnew by private email on 8 May 2020, copying in Gove. She offered to supply large quantities of PPE face masks, the Guardian revealed, saying they could be sourced through “my team in Hong Kong”.
Agnew passed the offer to civil servants handling “priority” offers from politically connected people. PPE Medpro, the company, was not even incorporated until four days later, on 12 May 2020, but by the end of June, the government had contracted to pay it £203m of public money.
A few weeks after these latest revelations, in late April 2022, Mone made a rare appearance in the House of Lords to vote on the government’s police, crime, sentencing and courts bill. The following day police cars turned up at her London and Isle of Man properties. The raids by the National Crime Agency (NCA), investigating potential fraud relating to PPE Medpro, were reported widely. Mone has not voted in the Lords since.
The latest batch of documents reviewed by the Guardian state that in October 2020, Barrowman transferred £29m originating from PPE Medpro profits to a trust set up on the Isle of Man. Records indicate the trust was set up to benefit Mone and her three children, and that its bank account was opened the same month that she recommended PPE Medpro to Tory ministers.
Barrowman is understood to have told HSBC that his wife had “no involvement” in the business activities of PPE Medpro, and the onward transfer of its profits via his personal bank account had been made “in his personal capacity”.
These details will add significant pressure on the peer, who is facing an investigation by the Lords commissioner for standards into whether she breached the conduct rules by failing to register an interest in the company, and by lobbying for it to be awarded government contracts. That investigation continues. Mone has denied wrongdoing.
The NCA’s investigation into potential fraud by PPE Medpro also continues. So far no one has been arrested or charged. Lawyers for PPE Medpro have declined to comment.
Barrowman declined to answer questions about whether money originating from PPE Medpro profits was used to pay for the Lady M yacht, the new Glasgow properties, the wedding or the honeymoon. A lawyer for Mone and her children said: “We are advised there is no truth in what appears to be entirely speculative ‘guesses’ on your part.”
A year ago Mone’s lawyer responded to a question about whether money derived from PPE Medpro’s deal had funded the yacht. “The inference which you clearly wish to create is that our client has used her position to lobby the government to award lucrative contracts to companies ‘connected’ to her and then spent the proceeds on an expensive yacht … That is not only wholly untrue, but if repeated, is highly actionable as it is grossly defamatory of our client.”
Meanwhile, the UK government is continuing its attempt to recover money from PPE Medpro in relation to the unused gowns through a dispute resolution process. PPE Medpro insists the gowns purchased through the £122m contract passed inspection, and that the company – and, presumably, the beneficiaries of its profits – are entitled to keep the money.