Michelle Mone’s self-styled “fightback” interview with Laura Kuenssberg against accusations she and her billionaire husband, Doug Barrowman, profiteered to the tune of more than £60m from the Covid pandemic has been a case study in hubristic stupidity.
But for a significant number of journalists in the UK, on the receiving end of Mone’s attempts to shut them up by lying about their involvement with PPE Medpro, this jaw-dropping episode of ill-advised self-entrapment comes as little surprise.
The New European is far from the only news organisation attacked by Mone for wanting to tell the truth. Lawyers acting for her have targeted many journalists, not least the Guardian’s David Conn, who led the way with the story.
But the bizarre chain of legal threats she made to the New European of action for defamation over our front page headlined “Stop This Boat” gives an insight into the raw arrogance, duplicity and spectacular amateurism Mone has demonstrated.
After receiving her pre-action letter, it quickly became clear to us that either Mone was being given legal advice by an amateur or – incredibly – that the threats were in fact emanating from Mone herself, under the guise of her “in-house legal team”.
On August 23 this year, the day after we published our Stop This Boat front page, an email claiming to be “from the office of Baroness Mone” – but sent from what was very clearly her own personal email address – demanded we delete our stories about her online, withdraw all copies of the printed newspaper, apologise and pay damages to a charity of her choice.
Since the email address was “Michelle@…..” it was assumed it was Mone herself emailing. Yet when we replied telling her we would not comply with her demands, and demanding disclosure of documents demonstrating the true ownership of the Lady M yacht, the response (again from her “Michelle@…” email) insisted it was not Michelle Mone but “Baroness Mone’s family office”.
When asked if the entire office had access to her personal email, the author – who refused to be identified – insisted that replies were sent by Mone’s “in-house legal team”, who had access to her email.
Thinking this implausible, we asked for the “in-house legal team” to identify themselves. The “Michelle@….” email responded: “We don’t have to disclose the team in this office.”
After we again demanded evidence of the true ownership of the Lady M, the, ahem, “in-house legal team” replied with the kind of brevity alien to practising lawyers: “Your publication is 100% wrong about this and you will rectify.” We chose not to.
Certainly, it was telling that the threats had not come from an actual firm of solicitors (as other, earlier, legal threats including to the Guardian had). By that time, we suspected that the lies being told by Mone and Barrowman had become clear to anyone closely involved with the matter. Any solicitor continuing to knowingly represent them in intimidating the media with lies would face being struck off.
Besides the amateurish nature of Mone’s threats against the New European, it was our understanding that we were very far from being “100% wrong”, as she put it, that became one of the holes in which she has continued to dig, up to and including her appearance on Laura Kuenssberg’s show on Sunday.
“It’s not my yacht… it’s not my money,” Mone protested passionately to Kuenssberg.
It’s at the heart of their defence – murky semantics about whether money and items owned by Barrowman are in any sense also owned by his wife. We took the view that what was the property of a husband was also the property of his wife, and we believed any libel judge in the land would agree.
Since Mone, in her threats to us, had stated unequivocally that the Lady M – bought in the summer of 2021 after PPE Medpro won contracts for PPE to the tune of more than £200m – was “demonstrably” not her property, the New European insisted on documentation to prove this.
We made clear that until we had received that evidence, we would no longer engage with Mone’s complaint.
On September 27 we were emailed, by John Hardman of HC Legal Consulting, a letter from LM Yachts Limited, a company based in Douglas, Isle of Man. It stated that the Lady M was wholly owned by them and that “Baroness Mone has no proprietary interest whether direct or indirect in the said yacht or the Company.”
In his email, Hardman was at pains to point out “I am not in professional practice and therefore do not and will not provide Baroness Mone with legal representation.”
This was an important clarification, since John Gregory Hardman was struck off as a solicitor in January 2011 and prohibited by the Solicitors Regulation Authority from practising as a solicitor. When questioned about why he had been struck off, Hardman declined to tell us. He was more forthcoming, however, about the true nature of the ownership of the Lady M, confirming that LM Yachts is indeed connected to… you guessed it… Doug Barrowman.
When PPE Medpro was incorporated hurriedly in May 2020, in time to construct an opportunistic supply chain to win enormous government contracts for PPE, its 100% owner was declared to Companies House as Anthony Page, an accountant (later dismissed for gross misconduct, which he contests) employed by Doug Barrowman. Page was also a director of LM Yachts Limited, owner of the Lady M. The New European is confident that LM Yachts’ ultimate beneficial owner is Barrowman.
Mone’s claim that she has no interest in a yacht bought by her husband and named the Lady M, a photograph of which she posted on Instagram with the caption “business is rewarding”, is in the eyes of any reasonable person absolutely absurd.
The claim they didn’t specifically use profits to buy the yacht and refit it to the tune of several millions is equally spurious. Arguing the toss over what pool of their money was used to buy a £5m yacht months after profiting to the tune of £60m from PPE Medpro is moot.
The truth is, Barrowman and Mone lied about their involvement in PPE Medpro. She continues to be evasive about the ownership of the yacht. After months of denying she had any ownership, “direct or indirect” of the yacht, her husband appeared on the PPE Medpro “documentary” admitting the boat was, after all, bought by him. They both dissemble about who benefits from the more than £60m they took in profit from the government while “doing their bit” for the country.
In the BBC interview, Barrowman admitted being the ultimate beneficial owner of PPE Medpro. That should have been disclosed in the company’s official filings. As lawyer Dan Neidle points out, knowingly failing to disclose the true owner of a company is a criminal offence under the Companies Act. Barrowman claimed his ownership was hidden to protect his privacy – there is no such exemption in the Companies Act.
Michelle Mone tweeted after the Kuenssberg interview, encouraging the public to watch the whole thing and “make your own mind up”.
Even now the couple seems remarkably deluded about the scale of offence she and Barrowman have caused in their shady business operations. The web of deceit and obfuscation is only now beginning to unravel.