Cringing Scottish Tories wish they had been consulted before the Prime Minister chose fugitive bra entrepreneur Michelle Mone as his new business tsar, writes Euan McColm
DOWN the line comes a heavy sigh. I’ve called a member of the Scottish Conservatives to talk about Prime Minister David Cameron’s decision to put Michelle Mone OBE in charge of a review aimed at increasing the number of small businesses operating in deprived communities.
The sigh comes before I’ve asked a single question. The appointment of the bra tycoon as a “business tsar” is not, it is clear, an especially popular one with the PM’s party colleagues in Scotland.
The 43-year-old businesswoman and mother of three, who made her fortune as the head of the Ultimo lingerie company, is a larger-than-life character whose business and private lives are often played out across the pages of the tabloid press. Her successes, her failures, the break-up of her marriage – all of them have attracted great publicity. But then Mone has assiduously courted publicity since her company, MJM International, first came to prominence in 1999.
She is, says one Scottish Tory, “a public relations creation, a personal brand rather than a serious businesswoman”.
Mone’s appointment as head of this new government taskforce went ahead without the Scottish Tories being consulted. Neither was the party consulted over plans – announced by Mone herself last month – to make her a Conservative peer.
Had the party here been asked for its opinion, it would have urged caution on the part of the Prime Minister. Or, as one Scottish Tory has it: “He’d have been told she’s a nightmare.”
Mone certainly appears to be a focus – willing or otherwise – for controversy.
Earlier this year, she moved from her home in the west end of Glasgow to London, blaming “cybernats”, supporters of Scottish independence who attack opponents online.
Celebrities have, in the past, threatened to leave the country because of political outcomes – the magician Paul Daniels, famously, claimed he would think about quitting the United Kingdom if Labour won power in the 1990s (though after Tony Blair’s 1997 victory, Daniels remained in the country) – but Mone is perhaps unique in having carried out her threat.
It’s something that concerns some Scottish Tories.
One said: “Obviously we don’t agree with the SNP but that doesn’t mean we should get into ridiculous spats with them.
“We’re trying to tell Scots that the modern Conservatives are a different proposition to the party they turned away from and Michelle Mone is a real hate figure for a lot of people who support independence.
“It’s like the Prime Minister hasn’t really thought beyond the fact that she’s a sort of celebrity. People in England might think she’s the woman from The Apprentice but a lot of people in Scotland think she’s basically a gobby unionist. If you were drawing up a list of people who you’d want on your team to help persuade Yes voters that the Tories have changed then she wouldn’t be on it. I mean, look at the headlines that came after her appointment. Were they any use to us? Were they f***.”
The media coverage which followed the announcement of Mone’s new role must certainly have made uncomfortable reading for the Tories.
Businessman Douglas Anderson, managing director of the Glasgow-based tool and plant hire company GAP Group, dismissed Mone as a “small-time businesswoman with PR exposure far in excess of any success”, and described her businesses as “excessively over-promoted PR minnows”.
Anderson, who wrote to the Prime Minister to complain about Mone’s appointment to the Lords and her new business tsar role, reportedly said: “Because she is flogging bras and knickers she gets models, and she gets PR way ahead of anything she should get.
“I can live with that because it is fun and games, but when the Prime Minister is wanting to elevate her to the House of Lords it makes a complete mockery of the whole business. He must have lost his marbles.”
He added: “The total number of jobs she has brought to the UK will be minimal. There is no way, by any measure, that she is qualified to advise anybody on setting up a profitable business because, quite simply, she hasn’t.”
Certainly the slick Mone “success story” is not, on closer examination, without cracks.
MJM International suffered losses of £780,000 in 2013 before passing its assets to the parent company, Ultimo Brands, which also made a loss (both businesses published only the accounts of small companies).
Following these results, Mone sold 80 per cent of Ultimo Brands to a Sri Lankan firm, though she remains a director of the company.
Attacks from fellow business people were not the only bad news for Mone and the PM.
It was also reported that her company had used employee benefit trusts (EBTs) – tax avoidance schemes which were previously described as “morally repugnant” by Chancellor George Osborne.
According to documents filed at Companies House, more than £500,000 was paid into the EBTs in 2010 and 2011 when Mone and her former husband, Michael – both company directors – were trustees of the fund.
At that time, the directors’ loan account reached £862,000. In December 2013, auditors could only give a “qualified opinion” on the company’s accounts.
During the audit, accountants raised the issue of a transaction for £135,000 and wrote: “With respect to one related party balance included within amounts owed to related undertakings of £135,000, the audit evidence available to us was limited because no confirmation of the related party balance was provided.”
Mone has previously been reported as claiming to have a personal fortune of £20 million.
Labour MSP Neil Findlay was quick to make hay when the sun shone on the details of business dealings.
He said: “You can see why Michelle Mone has become the poster girl for the Tories. Her use of tax-avoiding EBTs and enjoyment of lavish expense and company loan accounts shows how out of touch she and her Tory pals are with the rest of us.”
“The financial machinations at the company when she was at the helm really call into question her credentials as someone carrying out a government review into business start-ups.
“What is she going to advise young budding entrepreneurs? How to avoid tax, live outside your means and submit partial accounts? That’s not exactly a good message for new businesses.”
Mone is a savvy self-promoter who began her career working for brewers Labatt. It took her just two years to rise through the ranks to become head of marketing in Scotland, and when she was made redundant she and her former husband went into business together in 1996.
Shortly after the launch of Ultimo in 1999, she hit financial difficulties and investors Sir Tom Hunter and Ian Grabiner came to her rescue.
But in public, the story was all about Mone doing things alone, an independent woman gaining success through hard work, without the help of others.
Her life story is an integral part of the Ultimo brand. In fact, after a string of high-profile celebrities had acted as the faces (or, more accurately, the bodies) of the company’s advertising campaigns, Mone even got down to her undies to promote the range. As the company’s profile grew, so did Mone’s. She was often photographed by paparazzi, out on the town in London with celebrity chums, and speculation about her private life made the Sunday tabloids.
Having long supported Labour, she ditched the party in 2009 and turned her attention to the Tories. And she also chose to get involved in the campaign to preserve the United Kingdom during last year’s independence referendum campaign.
She recently wrote about the negative side of the experience: “I found myself caught up in a growing, and extremely vitriolic social media hate campaign after becoming one of only a few business leaders to come out in favour of both nations remaining together. For the first time, I didn’t feel safe in Scotland.
“I have absolutely no problem with people expressing an opinion, but if you are going to be disrespectful, I don’t want to hear it.
“I was called a ‘c***’, a ‘cow’, a ‘slut’, as well as being told, ‘I’m going to get it’ and ‘We’ll come and get you’.
“I was also told they were ‘going to throw me across the Border’.
“The mood has got consistently worse and I now believe that the Scottish National Party’s Scotland is becoming a place consumed by hatred and ill will, a place where free speech is gradually being crushed and enterprise is despised.”
But this version of events draws criticism from unionists who campaigned for a No vote.
A Scottish Tory source said: “Michelle makes a big deal of being part of the campaign, but Better Together never used her. She did things off her own bat.”
In the same article in which she described the abuse aimed at her, Mone wrote that the SNP – including the party’s 56 MPs – were “muppets”.
“All they have done so far,” she wrote, “is whip up more animosity between two great nations who have stood together as strong neighbours for hundreds of years.
“I am extremely passionate about Scotland too, but, in my opinion, these new MPs are acting more like primary school kids who suddenly find themselves at university. We should all be allowed to give our opinion, and that’s a healthy way to be. But the SNP do not represent the whole of Scotland and our brothers and sisters in other parts of the UK need to remember that.”
How such forthright views will play with those she is expected to help start small businesses in Scotland remains to be seen, but some in the Scottish Tories have already delivered their verdicts.
One said: “She is going to upset people. Nothing surer.”
Upsetting people, however, would seem to be of little concern to Mone, who took to Twitter to respond to news stories about her appointment to the government role.
“Read this, please” she wrote, “You won’t break me. All my tax affairs and those of companies and businesses run by me have been handled in full compliance with the law. Any suggestion to the contrary is defamatory and will attract legal action. My legal team are watching and legal letters have gone out today. Typical SNP supporters.”
As controversy rages, Mone is in no mood to strike a conciliatory note.