YOU’D think that having been dazzled by one flamboyant character who brought them a shed-load of trouble, the Tories would be steering clear of the colourful and controversial.
Yet even as Camila Batmanghelidjh was being quizzed about the governance of the failed charity Kids Company by the public administration and constitutional affairs committee last week, lingerie tycoon Michelle Mone – who makes enemies more easily than Nadiya Hussain makes fairy cakes – was being “introduced” to the House of Lords. Dressed in the traditional red ermine robe, the girl-from-Glasgow’s-East-End-made-good became Baroness of Mayfair and, at the photo-call afterwards, Iain Duncan Smith and George Osborne grinned like chimpanzees, apparently oblivious to the potential tsunami of negative headlines heading their way.
How senior members of the Tory party can be unaware of Mone’s propensity for scrapes is a moot question, although soaring testosterone levels may be involved. Where Batmanghelidjh – with her exotic turbans and her toy helicopters – was an unknown quantity when she attended the Big Society seminar in Downing Street shortly after the 2010 election, Mone has been attracting flak since Cameron was an opposition MP. From whipping up strife in Rod Stewart’s marriage (by ditching current wife Penny Lancaster as the face of Ultimo and replacing her with his ex-wife Rachel Hunter) to scratching her ex-husband Michael’s Porsche as her own marriage imploded, Mone is the queen of the bust-up in more ways than one.
It’s already clear she has no intention of moderating her behaviour to better suit her new position at the heart of the establishment. In the past few months she has repeatedly drawn attention to herself; tweeting about travelling round the UK in a government-funded, chauffeur-driven Jaguar as she compiled a report on starting up businesses in deprived areas, designing her own coat of arms and trawling through Twitter looking for new people to block.
Then she upset mental health campaigners when she said she was glad she had OCD because it meant her drawers were always tidy and her business was well organised. Asked on to the Good Morning Britain sofa, she passed up the chance to promote a better understanding of the debilitating condition; instead she came over as a wannabe Katie Hopkins using other people’s problems as an excuse for self-promotion. Hopkins is another person with whom Mone has a long-standing feud. Mone branded the Hopkins a “disgrace” after her appearance on The Apprentice, then last year Hopkins branded Mone an asylum-seeker for threatening to move to England in the run-up to the referendum (she later carried out the threat despite the No vote).
It’s not as if Mone’s business success is such that it makes these other personal foibles tolerable. Her own affairs have come under increased scrutiny since her peerage was announced. First it was revealed her lingerie firm MJM had used tax avoidance schemes previously described as morally repugnant by Osborne (she denies doing anything illegal), then that the company had registered major liabilities before it ceased trading. Just last week, we were told MJM had made a loss of £388,000 in 2014, when Mone was still a director (she resigned earlier this year) and that she’d quit as director of the controversial diet pill company TrimSecrets, leaving her with only one active directorship in UBeauty, which has never filed accounts.
Early in her career, Mone did have an entrepreneurial streak and a flair for PR that turned Ultimo into one of the best-selling underwear brands. But at some point, her craving for publicity eclipsed her desire to succeed in business and her inability to censor her own outpourings damaged her credibility.
Mone’s tendency to speak without thinking was on display again last week when she outlined a plan to increase diversity in the world of banking: a sort of X-Factor-type recruitment process.
So what does it matter if the Baroness of Mayfair is a bit of a laughing stock? It isn’t as if the House of Lords is packed to the gunwales with razor-sharp intellects. Or that – given Lord Sewel’s cocaine and prostitute scandal – her social gaffes are going to besmirch its reputation. Perhaps Mone’s working class roots and go-getting attitude will blow some fresh air into the pale, male and stale institution.
But her appointment does underline the not so hidden shallows at the heart of the government. Slick Dave is obsessed with celebrity (particularly when it comes in shapely female form), hoping some of the glitz will stick. Hence, he thought nothing of using female MPs as “arm candy” during the Tory Party conference. While other leaders vet their appointments thoroughly, Cameron seems to be drawn to those whose skeletons are not only out of the closet, but cavorting around like they’re celebrating Mexico’s Dia de los Muertos. First, it was Andy Coulson and Rebekah Brooks; then Batmanghelidjh (whom Cameron ought to have scrutinised more closely as the amount of public money being handed to Kids Company grew). Of course, not all of Cameron’s dalliances have backfired so spectacularly; the worst that can be said about his decision to give advisory roles to the likes of Mary Portas, Carol Vorderman and Karren Brady is that nothing remarkable came of them. Perhaps, this time round it will be different.
Perhaps Mone will impress everyone with her insight and contribution. With her track record for calm decision-making and diplomacy, what could possibly go wrong? «