Better late and all that. You’d have thought the Tories might have wanted to remove the whip from Michelle Mone. After all, they wouldn’t want everyone to think that every Conservative peer may be on the make. Or that phoning up Michael Gove and Lord Agnew “for a government contract” is standard practice. Even if it appears to be so.
But apparently not. Instead, Lady Mone has decided to jump. To give her time to come up with some explanation of how a £203m contract went to a company, PPE Medpro, that specialised in manufacturing often unusable PPE – it’s an unusual USP – and £29m miraculously landed in one of her bank accounts.
A nice coincidence if you can get it. I guess, Mone is just born lucky. For some, the pandemic was the gift that just kept giving. OK, so many thousands of people died. But why dwell on the bleak side? Let’s just remember those who were apparently able to cash in. The entrepreneurs with the golden access.
Instead, our not so noble baroness has decided to take a leave of absence from the House of Lords. Though how you could tell the difference is anyone’s guess. Mone is almost as rare a sighting in Westminster as Lord Lebedev. By official counts she’s been spotted just nine times in the past year. And she hasn’t said a word for more than two and a half years. Why bother to open your mouth when you’re only paid £350 just for turning up? She is that rare oxymoron. A silent Mone.
Mone’s self-imposed exile came on the day when Labour were using an opposition day humble address to force the government to hand over all the documents relating to the PPE contract. Just how did she seemingly manage to swing it? Perhaps the UK should get her to negotiate some of our trade deals. She’s appears she’s got the knack.
And while they were about it, Labour also wanted to know how it was that the government hadn’t yet clawed back any of the £203m it had shelled out for some rubbish PPE. Just imagine. You find yourself with hundreds of millions of faulty gowns. Most normal people would try to send them back. Or ask for a refund. Or contact the Citizens Advice Bureau. That’s not the way of the Tories. They have been hoping against hope that hundreds of millions of doctors with no heads turn up. Then they can use the gowns. Genius.
The Tories voted with their feet. There was no way they were going to let their own reputations take a hit in a half-arsed defence of a government procurement system laced with corruption. Only three backbenchers showed their face. David Davis only stayed for about 20 minutes. Perhaps he had wandered into the wrong debate. Kieran Mullan and Stephen Hoare showed up to help out the luckless junior health minister, Will Quince, who had been tasked with the government’s defence. Or what passed for it. He owes Mullan and Hoare big time.
More surprisingly, there was no sign of the newly returned Matt Hancock. You may have thought he would quite like to share the exchanges he had with Mone while he was health secretary. After all, they had featured prominently in the newspaper serialisation of his pandemic diaries. Maybe he only speaks for money these days. Not for his constituents.
Angela Rayner opened the debate with a straightforward plea. For answers, clarity and the truth. Some hope. Would the government explain why only Tory contacts were given access to the VIP lane? That one was easy. Because that was the whole point of a VIP lane. The Conservatives wouldn’t have gone to all that trouble to make life easier for the opposition to make money. It was far too easy to get hung up on whether the PPE was fit for purpose or not.
What about the £770,000 a day it was costing the country to store PPE that didn’t work? An absolute bargain. We were still confident that the gowns with no arm holes would go to a country full of amputees. The £4bn of clobber that we burned for energy? A vital contribution to the National Grid. If not that green. And how was it that PPE Medpro was seemingly recommended by a cabinet minister five days before the company was even incorporated? Simples. Because the minister was a genius. He could tell they were going to produce some stuff that was a load of crap just by looking at the back of the cigarette packet their bid was written on.
At one point the deputy speaker had to remind Rayner she couldn’t mention Mone by name. Or dare suggest she might have done anything questionable. Even though everyone appeared to know she had. Only in Westminster.
So the Labour deputy leader seemed to ditch several paragraphs of her speech and settled for repeating her main arguments. Just come clean about who knew what and who had done what. Most of the strikes could have been settled with the amount of money the government had written off in useless PPE.
In reply, Quince could only make a fool of himself and hope no one was watching. And that his bosses would look kindly on him later. He started by pointing out that the pandemic had been an emergency. And in such circumstances it was customary for people to look to profiteer and rip off the country. It had been the government’s duty to give PPE Medpro priority access. Because at least that way there was a transparency to the process. Both the government and PPE Medpro had been transparently useless.
As for due diligence, it had all been done according to national guidelines. Which explicitly stated that all defects in PPE were to be approved. Or something like that. Only 12% of proposals that came through the VIP lane ended up with government contracts. So you could just imagine how bad they must have been. Look, said Quince. There’s no real harm done. We’re trying to get some money back. But don’t hold your breath. So the Conservatives would hang on to any incriminating evidence for the time being if that was OK.
It was just so hard to tell there had been anything wrong with the PPE Medpro bid, he said. Poor lamb. As he was speaking, the Guardian broke a second story that Mone had apparently profited from yet another deal. If only there had been a clue …