Michelle Mone, the press-friendly Tory peer, has turned into a press-friendly example of cronyism – Laura Waddell

Even Conservatives like Nadine Dorries are wondering how exactly Michelle Mone ended up in the House of Lords

A new symptom has joined the plethora of coughs and colds in the air. There’s an outbreak of foggy amnesia about Michelle Mone’s appointment to the House of Lords affecting the brains of politico Britain. After the car crash Laura Kuenssberg interview brought the baroness into sharp focus, pundits have been wondering how on earth Lady Mone got a seat in the first place.

Nadine Dorries is just one who asked: “The bigger question is: who put Michelle Mone forward to then Prime Minister David Cameron to be made a peer in 2015 and why? This country is full of successful entrepreneurs and they don’t all end up wearing ermine.” She rejected Mone’s appeals for sympathy, saying “in the interview, Mone whined that ‘...since I’ve walked into the House of Lords, it’s been a nightmare for me and my family’. Well, Michelle, there’s an easy answer to that. Do what Lord Callanan suggested yesterday, walk right back out again. It will be a better place without you.” It’s panto season all year round in British politics.

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But Mone’s appointment is no mystery to Scots who followed the news in 2014, when she was a prominent member of the Better Together campaign. As an outspoken critic of an independent Scotland, she memorably announced she’d move south if the vote went Yes – before moving to London anyway, citing abuse from ‘Cybernats’. Supporters of Scottish independence were particularly scathing of Mone’s appointment, broadly interpreting the move as a reward for her support of the Tory-backed No campaign the year prior. They were not the only critics.

The press did not respond positively to Cameron’s 2015 peer list. Mone’s lingerie business made for punny, sexist headlines; in one inglorious example, she was referred to by the Metro as “Lady Knickers”. The political commentariat would spend subsequent years freaking out over women leaders like Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon wearing high heels in the political arena; a fixation less based on fashion tastes than naked, blatant indignation about the presence of women wearing them.

The overgrown schoolboys of British public life could barely cope with the notion of bras, nevermind ones that boasted a boost to the cleavage as their chief selling point. Mone’s extraordinary change of fortunes was an intriguing story in itself – propelled by what seemed like sheer determination and a good line in a hard sell to an extraordinary, and unelected, level of British power. Most of the scrutiny of Mone’s actual business acumen, the supposed basis of her selection, came from within Scotland, to whom the entrepreneur wasn’t a stranger.

Notably, Douglas Anderson of tool and plant hire company Gap Group wrote personally to Cameron to complain and described Mone’s businesses as “no more than excessively over-promoted PR minnows gaining unjustified acclaim due to the glamorous sector they happen to be in”.

Ultimo, Mone’s most well-known brand, had propelled her into the public eye with some buzzy stunts. For its launch at Selfridges in London (a coup for a growing brand), actors were hired to play plastic surgeons, protesting the bra would put them out of work. It’s reminiscent of the Mad Men episode ‘Public Relations’ where Peggy Olson hires actors to fight over Sugarberry hams, a move her boss Don Draper disapproves of as sleazy but grudgingly concedes worked. Since Mone took up her appointment as Entrepreneur Tsar, Ultimo ceased trading in the UK.

But Mone had a lot to boast of regardless. She was in the plaudits track, where one recognition seems to befall the next, each playing a role in boosting the other’s integrity and rationale. The Lords was another level entirely. When interviewed by the Guardian in 2015 about what she was most proud of, Mone said – besides “all the inventions I’ve created” and receiving an Order of the British Empire (in 2010, for “services to the lingerie industry”) – “I helped the Prime Minister with the referendum and in keeping the Union together. That was tough, but it had the most rewarding results.”

At that time, Mone was the latest in the line of celebrity expert women appointed by Cameron to make his tenure appear modern, and as a pitch to women voters who’d been slow to warm to him in the polls. His press-ready picks got visibility and column inches. Carol Vorderman became tsar for maths. Anya Hindmarch and Karren Brady advised on retail and small business.

Mone’s expertise, apparently, was her entrepreneurship. But in typical ‘branch office’ style, there was said to be a split between the Scotland and Westminster Tories, the former disgruntled with the Prime Minister’s over-promotion of Mone, perhaps anticipating embarrassment from the press-ready freewheeler down the line. That day has come, coinciding, oddly enough, with Cameron himself popping back up.

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Senior Tories fell into line and robustly defended Cameron’s pick. Iain Duncan Smith, the then Work and Pensions Secretary, announced Mone’s appointment with gushing compliments: “There’s no one I can think of that’s better qualified to help young entrepreneurs from deprived backgrounds to turn a good idea into a flourishing business. We used to be known as a nation of shopkeepers. I want Michelle to report back to me on how we can encourage people of all backgrounds to take up this entrepreneurial spirit.”

The story of profiteering from the pandemic is still unfolding. According to Lady Mone, seemingly keen the buck won’t stop with her, Michael Gove is best placed to be called upon for the next update. Each noisy bit of press reminds the voting public of wasted billions.

But most dangerously of all, for the Tories? Their press-friendly peer turned into a press-friendly example of cronyism. The public can see the game is rigged.



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