In this week's Sunday Times
, Camilla Long reflected on a frankly jaw-dropping encounter with the embattled Glaswegian and Conservative member of the House of Lords, Michelle Mone, almost a decade ago. After striding into the bar at the Dorchester Hotel in Mayfair, Mone – who Long believes is the 'most chaotic person' she has ever met – wept over her recent divorce and boasted about her Ultimo lingerie business.
As Long explains, Mone is one of a new breed of 'lifestyle peers' – essentially, 'Instagrammers' made parliamentarians-for-life – ennobled, in this case, by David Cameron, in 2015 to solve his 'woman problem'. In addition to serving a spell as Cameron's 'start-up business czar', Mone's CV includes pushing Trim Secret weight loss pills (which the British Dietetic Association stated were 'unfounded and feeding into public confusion and pseudo-science') and launching a cryptocurrency which folded after just three months.
At the time of her elevation to the Lords, Scottish Conservatives were dismayed by Cameron's decision. In August 2015, one senior Tory told Euan McColm in Scotland on Sunday
that Mone is a 'public relations creation – a personal brand rather than a serious businesswoman' and correctly predicted that she would be a 'nightmare' for the government. Fellow business owners highlighted that MJM International made losses of over £750,000 in one year (before transferring its assets to its parent company) and observed that her start-ups were 'excessively over-promoted PR minnows' which created a 'minimal' number of new jobs.
While the sleaze of Cameron's premiership seems relatively minor compared to the extensive law-breaking and dodgy dealing that Boris Johnson's administration permitted during the Covid years, Neil Findlay (then MSP for Lothian Region) suggested that Mone's 'use of tax-avoiding Employee Benefit Trusts and enjoyment of lavish expenses and company loan accounts shows how out of touch she and her Tory pals are with the rest of us'. In a particularly savage aside, Findlay told McColm that Mone would only be able to advise new businesses 'how to avoid tax, live outside your means and submit partial accounts'.
Last Wednesday, a long-running investigation by David Conn in The Guardian
revealed that documents leaked to the paper by HSBC demonstrate that Mone received £28.8m (via the off-shore Keristal Trust) from PPE Medpro, which was awarded £203mn worth of UK Government contracts to supply face masks and surgical gowns, at her recommendation. As Dan Neidle (the founder of Tax Policy Associates) told the Financial Times
at the weekend, HM Revenue and Customs might view the £28.8m as a payment for her help in securing the contract which, as a peer deemed to be a UK resident and tax-payer, would be 'fully taxable, whether she receives it in the UK, puts it into a trust, or keeps it on the moon'.
This remarkably persistent piece of investigative journalism, which has been aided by a flurry of Freedom of Information (FOI) requests by Jolyon Maugham's Good Law Project, has also uncovered that both of PPE Medpro's directors worked for Mone's husband's business, with one being listed as the secretary of her MGM Media business. FOIs also revealed that the vast majority of PPE Medpro's surgical gowns (some £122m worth) have since been rejected as sub-standard.
While PPE Medpro is the subject of an ongoing criminal investigation after the National Crime Agency raided Mone's residences in London and the Isle of Man earlier this year, and Mone herself is being investigated under the House of Lords Code of Conduct, this appears to be another egregious example of what Private Eye's
Richard Brooks calls the 'profits of doom'. In all, it is estimated that the government has written off £8bn-£9bn worth of PPE, with the Shadow Chancellor, Rachel Reeves, tweeting that £3.5bn of public contracts went to 'Tory friends and donors' during the pandemic.
Although the government is seeking to recoup some money from the so-called 'VIP Lane', Mone's actions have helped reinvigorate the case for the abolition of the House of Lords, which Keir Starmer recently pledged to replace with a (typically vague) 'reformed upper chamber' if Labour wins the next General Election. Despite pledging to play a 'full and active role' as one of the 45 peers who David Cameron sent to the Lords shortly before and after securing his slim majority in the Commons in May 2015, Mone has made just four speeches and asked a mere 22 written questions since her maiden speech.
In addition to having the questionable epithet of being (as far as I can tell) the only parliamentarian to have quoted Whitney Houston, Mone has one of the worst attendance records in the crimson end of the Palace of Westminster, with one report in October 2018 revealing that Mone had attended just 19 out of a total of 157 sittings in the previous parliamentary year. As Rona Mackay (the SNP MSP for Strathkelvin and Bearsden since 2016) told The Times
four years ago, Mone is a 'pointless peer, a ludicrous waste of public money' and a prime example of the need to 'chuck all the has-beens, failed politicians, aristocrats, and party cronies off the public payroll'.
Despite Peter Hennessy's warning that House of Lords reform is 'part Bermuda Triangle, part Quantum Mechanics', I am a convinced 'mend it, not end it' man, to reverse Earl Alexander's famous maxim. While its critics rightly highlight that it is bursting at the seams, under-represents smaller parties, and still contains 92 hereditary peers, the House that Robert Saunders describes as not so much a 'timeless relic of antiquity' but a 'Frankenstein's monster of shreds and body parts' remains a fundamental element of parliament's ability to exert any meaningful scrutiny on the government.
While Phil Burton-Cartledge rightly identifies that Starmer's proposed reforms are a 'quick and relatively cost-free means of telegraphing his intentions as a change-minded politician', Alexander Horne (a former parliamentary lawyer) makes a compelling change that 'the introduction of electioneering and the reinforcement of party politics… would have a negative impact on the collegiality and co-operative nature of the Lords', entail a potential loss of expertise (as expert appointees refuse to stand for election) and risk becoming a needless distraction for a government with limited bandwidth.
In keeping with the incremental change brought about by the House of Lords Reform Act 2014 (which allowed peers to retire, resign and expel members for non-attendance or criminality) and the House of Lords (Expulsion and Suspension) Act 2015, further practical measures to improve its efficacy could include:
• The government offering to support the measures contained in Philip Norton's House of Lords (Peerage Nominations) Bill, which would put the House of Lords Appointments Commission (HOLAC) on a statutory basis, ensure that the Lords is no larger than the Commons, and end the Prime Minister's power to overrule the Commission's 'advisory' recommendations.
• In the meantime, the party leaders should collectively uphold the Burns Commission's 'two out, one in' mantra in legislation to allow the Lords to move towards its long-held target of having 600 members, thus ending the unlimited flow of 'political appointees' which Theresa May limited but swelled again during Boris Johnson's premiership.
• Likewise, accepting Bruce Grocott's long-standing proposal to change Standing Order 9(5) and end the requirement for a by-election to replace a dead or retired hereditary peer would, in time, end the anachronism where individuals are able to become parliamentarians by accident of birth.
• As the Constitution Unit has repeatedly recommended, party leaders should also agree a 'proportionality formula' to ensure that new appointments reflect the result of General Elections; as well as a cap on party nominations so, as Robert Saunders has argued, Prime Ministers would have to use their own, strictly limited, allocation if they still wish to 'nominate their friends'.
• Empowering HOLAC to block peerages for donors, individuals who are currently subject to disciplinary investigations and other 'unsuitable' candidates, and ensuring that it can compel parties to fill 'any gaps in vetting information' that its chair, Paul Bew, lamented in a letter to the Prime Minister last month.
• Ending the Church of England's monopoly on the Red Benches – by making the Lords Spiritual representatives of all major faith groups across the United Kingdom or doing away with religious leaders in parliament altogether.
While I sympathise with those who seek to do away with the Lords and would be baffled if anyone suggested tacking on an upper chamber of appointed peers to Holyrood, it seems illogical to do away with an important check on an overbearing executive in a period of such poor public administration. In short, as Lord Dobbs once observed, the Lords are 'parliamentary worms' in the legislative 'composting machine', capable of making even the most ill-conceived legislation from the Commons 'more fragrant and more fertile'.
Tom Chidwick is a contemporary historian, who splits his time between London and Edinburgh