Michelle Mone's "tough year of pain"

Michelle Mone liked to portray herself as a working-class heroine who worked her way to the top through grit and determination. But her pedestal is built on sand.

Baroness Mone (centre) ahead of the State Opening of Parliament by Queen Elizabeth II, in the House of Lords at the Palace of Westminster in London. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Wednesday June 21, 2017. See PA story POLITICS Speech. Photo credit should read: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire
(Image credit: Stefan Rousseau - WPA Pool/Getty Images)

In the summer of 2021, when a traumatised Britain was enduring a third wave of Covid infections, the Conservative peer Michelle Mone posted a photograph on Instagram of herself and her husband Douglas Barrowman in the Mediterranean on board their new luxury yacht, Lady M. She captioned it: “business isn’t easy, but it is rewarding”. 

She was right about that, says Marina Hyde in The Guardian – “provided you’re shameless and grasping enough” to “fast-track” your way into winning a £203m contract to supply masks and other PPE products to the NHS and clear at least £65m in profit, even though much of the kit was allegedly unusable.

Mone, who made her first fortune via the lingerie company Ultimo, lied repeatedly for years about her role as a “plague profiteer” and threatened to sue journalists who pursued the allegation, before outing herself just before Christmas in an “absolute disaster class of an interview” with the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg.

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What jarred most was her claim that she was the victim. It was pure panto, says The Sunday Times. Mone “stepped into the role” of villain “with the kind of aplomb that comes from spending much of your career posing in your underwear”. By Christmas Eve, she was comparing her plight to that of the Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar after the National Crime Agency froze her bank accounts.

With civil suits also pending from the Department of Health, and several newspapers demanding the repayment of legal fees, Mone is feeling the heat in her Isle of Man hideaway – chosen, her husband told Kuenssberg, because “I don’t want anyone in the press to know of any business activity or anything I get engaged in”.

The government is feeling the heat, too. Although stripped of the Conservative House of Lords’ whip last year, there are now demands for Mone’s complete removal, along with troubling questions about how she got there in the first place. “It’s been an extremely tough year of pain,” says Mone, 52. But then she is also, in her own words, “a tough cookie” who, in a “fairy-tale” rise, battled her way out of “the mean streets of Glasgow”, says the London Evening Standard.

In her 2015 autobiography, My Fight to The Top – penned at the height of her “working-class heroine” phase – Mone details growing up in a home with no bath and an outside loo. Her father was wheelchair-bound; her brother died in childhood of spina bifida. Mone left school at 15 with no qualifications but claims to have been a best-selling Avon rep by the age of 13, acting on behalf of her mother. 

Certainly, by her early 20s (by which time she was married and already a mother), Mone’s business smarts seemed self-evident, says The Sunday Times. She landed a job with brewer Labatt and was swiftly promoted to head of marketing.

In time-honoured fashion, the setback of being made redundant at 24 proved Mone’s great opportunity. She launched Ultimo in 1999 on the back of a gel bra and “burst into public consciousness” when she featured on the BBC series Trouble at the Top, documenting the company’s many crises. Soon she was signing celebrities such as Penny Lancaster to model the underwear.

In 2004, she pulled off a coup by dumping Lancaster, Rod Stewart’s wife, for his ex-wife Rachel Hunter – prompting Stewart to call her a “manipulative cow”. At its peak, Ultimo was reportedly worth £50m, “although the whole gravity-defying business edifice always seemed as cantilevered as the gel-filled bras it sold”.

Nonetheless, Mone’s entrepreneurial credentials impressed David Cameron sufficiently to make her a life peer in 2015, and his “start-up tsar” to boot – even though her “rags-to-riches story” seemed to become “more fantastical with each telling”.

The same might be said of many of Mone’s other business claims, says the Standard – including her promotion of “quack weight-loss pills” and other hokey beauty products, and a later foray into a cryptocurrency scheme that went bust (not before Mone had comically declared herself “one of the biggest experts in cryptocurrency and blockchain”).

Indeed, when you peer beyond the soap opera, her overall record is appalling, says The Sunday Times, not least because of her “parsimonious” relationship with the truth. 

“Mone is nothing if not a survivor”, but it will be hard to come back from this one.

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Jane writes profiles for MoneyWeek and is city editor of The Week. A former British Society of Magazine Editors editor of the year, she cut her teeth in journalism editing The Daily Telegraph’s Letters page and writing gossip for the London Evening Standard – while contributing to a kaleidoscopic range of business magazines including Personnel Today, Edge, Microscope, Computing, PC Business World, and Business & Finance.

She has edited corporate publications for accountants BDO, business psychologists YSC Consulting, and the law firm Stephenson Harwood – also enjoying a stint as a researcher for the due diligence department of a global risk advisory firm.

Her sole book to date, Stay or Go? (2016), rehearsed the arguments on both sides of the EU referendum.

She lives in north London, has a degree in modern history from Trinity College, Oxford, and is currently learning to play the drums.