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Rishi Sunak has become embroiled in a bitter row with Baroness Michelle Mone, a Conservative peer, over her role in a medical equipment company that won over £200mn of state contracts during the pandemic.
The UK prime minister said he took the affair “incredibly seriously”, after Mone, a lingerie entrepreneur, admitted she stood to gain from profits of about £60mn made by PPE Medpro, which sold personal protective equipment to the government from May 2020.
Mone, who on Sunday admitted lying to the media over her involvement in PPE Medpro, wrote on X: “What is Rishi Sunak talking about? I was honest with the Cabinet Office, the government and the NHS in my dealings with them. They all knew about my involvement from the very beginning.”
Labour is seeking to portray the affair as a case of Tory cronyism and evidence of ministers diverting funds from a cash-starved NHS to pay for dubious Covid contracts. The main opposition party has an average 18-point polling lead ahead of the election expected next year.
Mone told the BBC on Sunday she approached Michael Gove, then minister for the Cabinet Office, offering PPE Medpro’s services in 2020.
Over several years, spokespeople and lawyers for Mone denied she had any involvement with the company, as did people representing her husband Doug Barrowman.
On Sunday, Mone admitted she stood to gain from profits of about £60mn. She and her children were beneficiaries of trusts where the money was held, said Mone, adding: “It’s my husband’s money.”
Sunak tried to distance himself on Monday from Mone, saying: “The government takes these things incredibly seriously, which is why we’re pursuing legal action against the company concerned in these matters.”
Speaking on a visit to Scotland, he added: “That’s how seriously I take it and the government takes it. But it is also subject to an ongoing criminal investigation, and because of that, there’s not much further that I can add.”
Meanwhile Lord James Bethell, a health minister during the pandemic, said on X that Mone wasn’t “honest about her financial interest” when discussing the PPE Medpro bid for a Covid contract with him.
“She didn’t explain ‘from the very beginning’ about her financial ‘involvement’,” he said. Bethell posted a message from Mone referring to “the team at PPE Medpro”, without mentioning her own links.
Mone was contacted for comment.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said the affair was “a shocking disgrace from top to bottom” and called for a minister to give a statement to the House of Commons on how the contract came to be awarded.
The government started legal proceedings against PPE Medpro last year, claiming breach of contract over the quality of £122mn worth of protective gowns provided by the company. PPE Medpro denies the goods were faulty. The National Crime Agency is also conducting an investigation.
Mone is at present on a leave of absence from the House of Lords. Lord Martin Callanan, an energy minister, said: “I would hope that she would not be coming back to the House of Lords.”
Meanwhile, Sunak’s problems grew on Monday when it was announced that Conservative MP Miriam Cates was under investigation by the parliamentary standards watchdog over allegations she caused “significant damage” to the reputation of the House of Commons.
The MP for Penistone and Stocksbridge, elected in 2019 and a rising star on the right of the party, was accused of harming the reputation of the “House as a whole, or of its members generally”.
No further details of the probe have been published because the parliamentary standards commissioner’s process is confidential.
Cates is one of eight MPs being investigated by the Standards Commissioner, alongside Dame Eleanor Laing, Commons deputy speaker, and veteran Tory Sir Bernard Jenkin.
Cates was approached for comment.