A SUPER-RICH COUPLE in the UK are under a spotlight after a series of revelations involving a mysterious Hong Kong connection.
Scotswoman Michelle Mone rose to fame after re-inventing the brassiere, with a product line called Ultimo that was an international hit with millions of women.
Her rags-to-riches story enchanted the press, as did her tough outspokenness on public affairs. When some people rioted in London, she called for the army to be brought in and wrote a tweet saying: “People who riot, steal, cover face deserve zero human rights.”
BECOMING THE BARONESS
In 2015 she acquired the title of Baroness of Mayfair, but the newspapers turned this into Baroness Bra, to celebrate her cleavage-enhancing top-selling product. Mone was given a seat in the House of Lords, the un-elected upper chamber of government that scrutinizes British legislation—so she literally could be said to co-rule the land.
Her story had a perfect fairytale ending when she married the financier Douglas Barrowman in 2020. She ended up living in mansions and travelling by private jet. Her tale seemed to demand a movie in the rags-to-riches “princess” category.
STARTED TO UNRAVEL
But it all started to unravel. In 2020, when there was a worldwide scramble for personal protective equipment, she made a personal recommendation to the UK government in May that she could get a large delivery of gear from “my team in Hong Kong”. The firm she was talking about, PPE MedPro, secured two contracts worth more £203m (HK$1.9 billion), despite a curious lack of track record. It would be later revealed that the firm didn’t exist at the time.
But the following year, it became evident that the corner-cutting that had taken place during 2020 was so extensive that there was a series of investigations into what the UK press called a “Tory sleaze” crackdown.
Some of the rapidly ordered items did not meet required standards. Others, including some from Hong Kong sources, seemed to be wildly overpriced.
In other cases, awkward connections were revealed. Politician Iain Duncan Smith, lead voice in the China threat campaign, was noted to have taken about taking £25,000 a year for a “second job” advising a huge sanitizer company—while making decisions that benefited the company that provides the UK National Health Service with 92 per cent of that product.
In Westminster earlier this month, parliamentarians were told that so much useless equipment (included some of the PPE Medpro gear) had been ordered that the cost of storing it was “£770,000 every single day”. Some items are stored in the UK, while others are in mainland China or Hong Kong.
BARONESS IN THE SPOTLIGHT
This year, the spotlight turned specifically to Baroness Bra and her Hong Kong connections.
It became clear to the public why PPE Medpro had no track record. UK government documents revealed Michelle Mone had recommended it five days before the company had even been formed. Its boss was a man who worked for her, Anthony Page.
Other documents leaked to the Guardian newspaper showed that it bought 25 million gowns from Wujiang Tutaike Textile and Finishing Co Ltd (known as TKK), which charged US$60.35 million (at the time £46m). This left £76m (less salaries and shipping) as a very fat profit. The company, in Jiangsu Province, has a good reputation, but for some reason the gowns were never used, because of a disagreement between Medpro and the NHS. Details of her “team in Hong Kong” have yet to emerge.
Earlier this year, Guardian reporters asked why Mone did not include PPE Medpro in her House of Lords register of financial interests. Her lawyer replied: “Baroness Mone did not declare any interest as she did not benefit financially and was not connected to PPE Medpro in any capacity.”
Still, there was enough evidence of her relationship with the firm that several investigations were started, including one from the House of Lords Commissioner for Standards, and one from the National Crime Agency. Yet it was true she was not listed as a staff member on PPE Medpro documents.
A NEW REVELATION
Everything changed again this month. A batch of documents from an internal investigation by HSBC, the Hong Kong-founded bank, were leaked, and details were printed in the Guardian newspaper.
They showed that Douglas Barrowman, Mone’s husband, was paid at least £65m in profits from PPE Medpro. The cash was then moved through various companies, trusts and offshore accounts. About £29m ended up in a trust set up to directly benefit Mone and her children, the report indicated.
HSBC bankers said that the flow of money indicated that the account holder “may be attempting to conceal the true origins of the funds through multiple layers of transactions creating a distance between the receipt of PPE funds and the final beneficiaries”.
Meanwhile, the Baroness is keeping her head down. But with government investigators and the press on her tail, the full story will inevitably come out. It is likely to make an even better movie – but now we know that it won’t be a Disney princess type tale.
Image at the top is a montage showing the city of Douglas on the Isle of Man by James Qualtrough, overlaid with an image of Michelle Mone by B Milnes/ Wikimedia Commons