The Michelle Mone PPE scandal is the tip of the iceberg

Mone was only one among many with well-placed Tory connections profiteering from the Covid “VIP” route. This cannot happen again

December 20, 2023
Michelle Mone being admitted to the House of Lords. Image: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo
Michelle Mone being admitted to the House of Lords. Image: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Of course the Tory peer Baroness Michelle Mone, who has now admitted to lying to the public about her family’s vast and questionable gains of at least £65m from personal protective equipment (PPE) procurement during the Covid crisis, shouldn’t be in the House of Lords. Of course her, and her husband’s, securing of these gains from a special preferential procurement route for friends and contacts of Tory ministers (the so-called “VIP lane”) was disgraceful and possibly fraudulent.  

But she was only one among many with well-placed Tory connections profiteering from the Covid “VIP” route. And the general stench of corruption from the Johnson government in particular—which ruled until just 15 months ago—isn’t just about contracts but also appointments. Boris Johnson’s appointment of the guy who helped arrange a large personal loan as chairman of the BBC was one among several cases of disgraceful practice. 

Alan Rusbridger, editor of Prospect, has pieced together the extraordinary saga of the appointment of the current chair of Ofcom, the BBC and media regulator. The incumbent was a Tory peer, which itself ought to be unacceptable for a regulator charged with upholding political impartiality. But there was a plot, allegedly promoted by more than one Number 10 Johnson aide in league with Robbie Gibb, a former Tory director of media at Number 10 and then (and now) a director of the BBC, to install an even less suitable Conservative party HQ apparatchik in this highly sensitive job. The source is no less than Nadine Dorries, who was Johnson’s culture secretary at the time. 

The House of Lords, the boards of government departments and government quangos are all now packed with Tory donors or supporters. The Tories now have nearly 100 peers more than Labour in the upper house—270 Tories to just 175 Labour—as wave after wave of appointment of Tory donors and party hacks has proceeded since the Cameron years. This has subverted the previous convention that the two major parties should have roughly equal representation in the Lords. It is an egregious form of corrupt malpractice. 

So government contracts, seats in parliament and public appointments are all now tainted by corruption. The worst cases took place under Boris Johnson, but the extent of malpractice is still opaque. The neutral and non-corrupt civil service, decapitated by the mass sacking of permanent secretaries under Johnson and Truss, has proved a weak or non-existent bulwark. This is not least because at the centre of each department now sits a coterie of party-political special advisers—not just one or two as in my day as a minister—who often wrest effective control of appointments processes from the civil service, whatever the formal rules.

We never thought this kind of thing happened in Britain. But since it now does, there needs to be new safeguards to eradicate the new disease of British corruption. Three in particular. 

First, appointments to the House of Lords need to be properly regulated. Since conventions have broken down, legislation needs to stipulate, on a fair basis, the numbers that each party can make, and the independent Lords appointments commission should have powers to veto—not simply advise against—dodgy party nominees. 

Second, in respect of government contracts, Labour’s proposed “Covid Corruption Commissioner” is a good first step. But the future is as important as the past. The awarding of all major public contracts in future should be overseen by an independent body—maybe the National Audit Office—including in emergency periods like Covid where time constraints make it hard to conduct a normal competitive process. There should obviously be no preferential treatment for party supporters and donors. 

Thirdly, in respect of critical public appointments like the chairmanship of the BBC and Ofcom, and the governorship of the Bank of England, a confidential cross-party body of senior parliamentarians should vet the shortlist and have the power to reject individuals it believes are unsuitable—or the entire shortlist if it judges it inadequate. At present there is only a power for House of Commons select committees—most of them with a government majority—to give an opinion on the suitability of the candidate actually appointed. But even when a committee advises against the appointment, ministers rarely change their mind. 

All this needs to be done urgently—before Britain becomes a byword for modern corruption.