November 30, 2022

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The curious case of the Miami jewellery designer and the UK government’s PPE scandal

Before Michael Saiger won at least six PPE contracts worth in excess of £200 million from the United Kingdom’s Department Of Health And Social Care (DHSC) last year, he designed stylish gold and silver bracelets. Based in Miami and set up in 2009, Saiger’s jewellery brand is called Miansai, a combination of the first letters of the founder’s full name: Michael (“Mi”), Andrew (“an”) and Saiger (“sai”). One of Saiger’s bestselling pieces is the Nexus rope bracelet in sterling silver and nylon. Today, it is on sale through the Miansai website for £50.

Saiger looks younger than his 35 years. He’s slight, with a narrow frame not unlike that of a rookie Formula One racing driver. He has sharp, backlit eyes, a neat low fade with side-parting haircut and a perfectly manicured five-day beard. As we sit down to talk, the strain of running multiple businesses and supporting a young, expanding family shows a little under his eyes; a few days beforehand he and his wife, Rachael (also the fashion director of Miansai), welcomed their second child, a little baby boy.

The designer: Michael Saeger is the founder of US jewellery brand Miansai, who last year won multiple contracts to provide PPE to the UK

Saiger started making jewellery in college. Although he grew up in Westchester County, New York, he came to the University Of Miami, Florida, to study administration and marketing in 2005. The ambition at the time was to make unique designs for men that were neither too masculine nor too feminine. To be clear, he wanted that thing he couldn’t find for himself: something with a luxury, high-end aesthetic yet with an accessible price point, both to manufacture and to sell.

The first piece of jewellery Saiger ever made came about through what you might call a moment of serendipitous opportunism. The more one learns about Saiger, in fact, the more one can tell he’s a man whose entrepreneurial alchemy is all about being proactive, instinctive and agile. Right place, right time, right idea. Watching an ex-girlfriend in college attempting to craft a piece of jewellery, Saiger told her, teasingly, he thought he could do a better job.

‘[Boris Johnson] is aware of who I am. If I am a problem that lands on his desk, it delights me’

That first design was inspired by a bullet. In fact, it was a bullet. Emptied and decommissioned, Saiger then tied a piece of leather to the casing to make a bracelet. Simple, cheap, impactful. Friends seemed to like it – a lot – and over the next couple of years, making the odd piece here and there, Saiger began thinking how he might be able to scale his designs from one-off trinkets and keepsakes to something resembling a business with more structure, longevity and opportunity.

The brand became successful, fast. Saiger had an eye for that very thing he’d set out to discover: gender-fluid jewellery that was refined yet relatively inexpensive. Indeed, when pressed for why his jewellery business is so successful, Saiger admits that part of this is down to his ability to spot “hit products”.

Notable Miansai pieces over the years include a design that looks like a length of speckled bungee cord coupled together with a silver or gold fish hook. Another “hit” is a bracelet seemingly modelled on an old handcuff design: a “U” linked together with a gold or silver bar. In a market crammed full of heavy link chains and lava bead bracelets, the brand found a sophisticated, tasteful young audience, an audience that would spend carefully but, crucially, spend often.

“Growing up I always wanted to be an inventor,” Saiger tells me. “So I guess, through my jewellery brand, I became one. I would start by taking my designs to the best speciality retailers in Miami and from there we launched into the big stores: Barneys, Bergdorf [Goodman], Saks Fifth Avenue and, in London, Harvey Nichols.”

Before opening bricks-and-mortar stores in Manhattan and Venice Beach in LA, he took to the road in a 1985 Airstream, gutting the interior and making a mobile shop. This gave Saiger and his small team the ability to test the products and to pop up and sell at festivals such as Coachella or hype-friendly spots such as Montauk on the East Coast. “Another crucial point was setting up our own direct-to-customer channels. We were doing this ten years ago; no one else was doing this in the jewellery market back then.”

The Daily Mirror calls out Matt Hancock, 18 April 2020

Making the type of jewellery sold by Saiger is a precision process, yet it’s one that can be scaled with modern manufacturing. Unlike fine jewellery – metals with a far higher carat; precious stones – the raw materials used by Saiger are plentiful and relatively cheap. “As we got bigger we kept all the design in house, in our workshop in Miami. Unlike some fashion brands, who might send sketches or drawings to their manufacturers, we know the success of the business is based on quality control. We do all the CAD [computer-aided design drawings used in engineering and architecture] in-house, we print the jewellery models and then we cast them. I learnt all this from the ground up. If it doesn’t look perfect we adjust it. So long as the factories follow our precise directions we know exactly what we are going to get back. We have extreme control over this.”

The result, Saiger claims, is that he has a wealth of knowledge about quality and which factories across the globe are best for making which products or parts of his products. “I’ve been in factories since I was 20 years old. Different countries specialise in different manufacturing techniques. It’s super complex, but someone is good at stamping or someone is better at casting or polishing. There are so many different kinds of factories and they all specialise in certain things.”

Saiger also has the same product (or parts) manufactured by different factories, sometimes in different counties. “We counter-source for almost every product we do,” he tells me. “I am obsessive about product sourcing. We don’t make the same product in just one factory.” Making competing factories supply the same product or part makes sound business sense, he explains. “Firstly, it ensures your supply can always meet demand if one factory shuts down or has a problem with raw materials. Secondly, it is also good for quality. Lastly, it’s good for negotiation.”

‘I’ve never used a middleman… All I wanted to do was help. I had the best intentions’

It was in January last year, while talking to one of his global “teams” in one of his international factories, that Saiger first learnt about Covid-19. “Some of the countries where we had factories began to shut down our supply chain,” he explains. “We had a lot of inventory here and we could make things in Miami, but China, for example, had completely shut down, so we didn’t have anything going on there.”

The Lawyer: Jolyon Maugham is the founder of the Good Law Project, a not-for-profit that has litigated the government on Brexit and PPE

© Jooney Woodward

Saiger, unlike so many, tells me he knew immediately the impact the virus would have globally. “I said, ‘Wow. There is no way this is going to just stay in China.’ So I started buying, you know? I started buying masks and supplies.” For whom? “For my friends, my family, for charities and organisations here. Because of what my team in China had told me, I knew that once this thing hit, we weren’t going to be able to get this stuff. And guess what? That was exactly what happened.”

It was between January and April 2020 that Michael Saiger’s story got really interesting and increasingly complex. It is regarding Saiger’s activities during these few months – months when the world was dealing with the first hellish wave of the coronavirus pandemic – that I am most interested in discussing with the designer. Despite huge media interest, this is the first time he has agreed to be interviewed about what happened during those extraordinary few months.

Of course, no one would know how the pandemic would unfurl exactly and few, if any, believed in February or March last year that the world would still be in and out of lockdowns 14 months on. Yet Saiger – with a company name of Saiger LLC and a trading name of Laif.Works – at some lightning-bolt moment, made the quick decision to focus on supplying the UK with the personal protective equipment (PPE) it so desperately needed. Or, rather, in regards to the Department Of Health And Social Care, the PPE equipment it didn’t know it so desperately needed.

The timeline regarding the procurement of PPE by the UK government is clear, if labyrinthine. On 31 January 2020 the UK government made PPE stocks from the Pandemic Influenza Preparedness Programme (PIPP) available for release, in preparation for an increase in demand. However, by mid-March the DHSC realised these stocks were woefully inadequate and over the weekend of 20-21 March something called the Parallel Supply Chain was established to procure additional, urgent PPE for UK hospitals and frontline workers.

This extra PPE was to be “open-sourced”, meaning the government called for help from across the UK and internationally. Subsequently, it would turn out, many of these large contracts would be awarded to previously unknown and inexperienced suppliers of PPE, without competition. The government claims it had to override the usual rules for public procurement because it was responding to an emergency. On 23 March the prime minister announced England would go into lockdown. On 19 April Saiger, through the newly set up public portal for PPE procurement, registered his interest in supplying PPE to the DHSC.

What is indisputable is that these contracts would make Saiger’s company, and others involved in this enterprise, an awful lot of money, one way or another – money that, eventually, would have to be stumped up by the UK taxpayer, money that should be accounted for, openly and transparently, not so much by Saiger and the other suppliers, one might argue, but certainly by the UK government. The government’s lack of transparency over the contracts it awarded during this period are now under intense scrutiny, which is calling into question the state of modern democracy in the United Kingdom.

In October 2020 the extent to which numerous private companies had been procuring PPE for the DHSC – the UK government department headed by health secretary Matt Hancock – since April of that year began to be revealed. Writing for the Byline Times, ex-BBC investigative reporter Sam Bright was one of the first to report that three large contracts worth £148.6m had been awarded by the DHSC to Saiger LLC for the supply of PPE in May and early June.

According to a report by the National Audit Office (NAO) – the UK body responsible for the scrutiny of public spending by parliament – published in November 2020, Saiger would eventually win at least seven contracts with the DHSC to supply “goggles, facemasks, gowns, gloves, hand hygiene” with a total value of £304m. The Byline Times has that figure much higher, at around £389m. When I interviewed Saiger and asked how many contracts he’d won with the UK overall, he told me, “Five… Yeah, five.” Afterwards, when GQ asked Saiger’s representatives to clarify the number of contracts won from the UK government and the total value of these contracts, the numbers differed again: six contracts with a value of £271m.

‘There was no way [Covid-19] was going to stay in China, so I started buying masks and supplies’

So why all the attention? Due to inadequate stockpiling by the UK government, the NHS at this time desperately needed more – or, rather, any – PPE for doctors, nurses and other frontline workers; all Saiger and other suppliers had done was step up to the plate and, in Saiger’s case, pivot, albeit staggeringly rapidly, from designing £50 gold bracelets and fashionable necklaces to supplying millions of pounds’ worth of medical equipment, certified and approved, for use during the pandemic. Saiger was far from alone as a supplier new to the PPE market during this time.

Come November 2020 and the story surrounding Saiger, the UK contracts and his ability to procure PPE began to get a lot more complex – and a lot more public. It turned out not all was well in Saiger’s camp, as a legal dispute between the designer and a Spanish businessman called Gabriel González Andersson concerning PPE procurement for the UK came to light when documents were filed in a US court.

As the BBC at the time reported, “Early this year, as the coronavirus pandemic was spreading rapidly around the world, Florida-based jewellery designer Michael Saiger set up a business to supply PPE to governments.” According to these court documents, “Looking to solidify its operations and expand its footprint in Europe, in March 2020 Saiger LLC began discussions with defendant Andersson.” Saiger engaged Andersson to “effectively [act] as Saiger LLC’s third-party chief operating officer”, to help with “procurement, logistics, due diligence, product sourcing and quality control” of the PPE equipment. As the report in November stated, “In effect, Mr Andersson was expected to find a manufacturer for deals that had already been done.”

So what did the somewhat mysterious Andersson get for his trouble? According to the court papers he was paid more than “$28m” (about £21m at the time) for his work on two of the contracts Saiger won to supply the NHS. The filings add that Andersson did “very well under this arrangement”.

So far, so civilised. The two continued a business relationship and Saiger, according to those court documents, received three new contracts with the UK government. In turn, as before, he asked Andersson for more help with the procurement: “On or about 11 June 2020, Mr Saiger and Mr Andersson continued discussions regarding Mr Andersson’s future role in Saiger LLC. In particular, Saiger LLC had sourced three new contracts with the United Kingdom’s Department Of Health And Social Care (DHSC) and Mr Saiger and Mr Andersson wished to discuss Mr Andersson’s future commitment to Saiger.”

Michael Saiger and his wife, Rachael, outside Miansai in Venice Beach, 2017

Yet something went seriously awry. There was, seemingly, a dispute between Saiger and Andersson – hence the reason for the court case in Miami. You see, for the three new contracts signed by Saiger with the DHSC, Andersson was in line to receive an additional $21.3m (£15.5m) in fees for “services performed”, but the court documents allege that once the agreements had been signed Andersson suddenly stopped doing any work for Saiger. “Mr Andersson did not provide the plaintiff with notice, reason or explanation for why he failed to perform his duties under the agreements.”

In the court papers filed in Miami, Saiger claims that Andersson’s inactions “delayed the delivery of PPE to healthcare providers and first responders in the United Kingdom during the Covid-19 pandemic” and that the designer was left “scrambling” to fulfil the new contracts by other means. Saiger tells me he had no trouble eventually fulfilling these new contracts, despite Andersson’s alleged French exit: “We were able to rapidly pick up the missing pieces. We had to put different people on different things and make it happen. At no time did this cause any delays with production or delivery.”

What did Saiger and Andersson fall out about? GQ was unable to speak to Andersson so we don’t know what he has to say about this. But a document we have seen from the US litigation suggests a company connected to Andersson denies everything Saiger says about their relationship and instead accuses Saiger of bad faith and of prior breaches of contract, including failing to pay Andersson on time.

Whatever the situation, for many UK taxpayers reading this story, it will not be so much the motives of the individuals concerned that matter – whatever one feels, it is not illegal to make money, even out of a national health crisis – but rather how someone such as Saiger, who had no experience in supplying PPE prior to the pandemic, came into the position to win such huge contracts with the UK government, contracts worth hundreds of millions of pounds – not least, some would argue, as there were companies in the UK already supplying PPE that were passed over.

“It’s as simple as this,” Saiger tells me almost a year on from that moment. “The DHSC had a public call for help on Twitter. They needed help. Their traditional supply chains, I would say, probably weren’t intact and they needed to look outside of their traditional supply chains to help. I knew I could help and I was super passionate about helping.” The fact that a fashion designer working in jewellery is able to respond to a tweet from the UK government, the DHSC, and win contracts worth more than £250m to supply products he has no experience of making seems fairly staggering.

‘People think you can just go to China, ask for a product and that’s it. It’s not so easy’

“So, you know, our team emailed…” continues Saiger, “then we got on the phone. We had to go through a rigorous process. We had to demonstrate that we had the ability to deliver and that we could do it at good value.” So what made Saiger’s application to the DHSC stand out from the rest of the competition? As he explains, at this precise moment in time last year you had every single supplier of PPE – traditional and nontraditional, experienced and non-experienced – and every single government of every single country in the world trying to get hold of the correct PPE and in record time. How did Saiger convince the UK government that he could beat the competition and deliver? “What set us apart was that we are agile, nimble and fast,” says Saiger. “A lot of these other companies – let’s say, the ones in the US – some of these big healthcare companies are so big that, whatever happens on the ground, to their teams in somewhere like China, by the time the correct information is passed down the line, from his boss to their boss to their boss, guess what? That factory has no more production left. At that time things were changing by the hour in the factories. I think a lot of people weren’t used to that extreme, fast pace.”

Saiger strongly feels that his company’s background in the jewellery business – the independence, the precision manufacturing, the counter-sourcing, the continued creative inventiveness – helped a great deal when it came to sourcing PPE quickly during the pandemic. “Let’s take a product like Coca-Cola,” he says. “This is product that they will have for 100 years. It just sells, right? We have to reinvent continuously. It’s fast-paced, the amount and the quality standards; I just felt like I was home. I was used to it.” In short, Saiger felt he’d been training his entire business life for this crucial, unprecedented moment.

Even so, it is a big ask, I suggest. Lots of pressure. Lives at stake. Public money. With the size of the orders and the chaotic, frantic nature of how PPE was being sourced at the time, did Saiger ever feel he was getting in over his head? “No. What I will tell you is that there is massive, huge, huge risk. But I had an obligation to help. Also I had the infrastructure in place. People think that you can just go to China, ask for a product and that’s it. It’s not so easy. The factories in China want the business, so they will always say ‘yes’. They will ‘yes’ you to death. But you really need to do your due diligence and do an audit of how it is going to work – precisely. How are we going to scale? At what pace?”

How did Saiger ensure this was all happening as per his instructions? “Well, as soon as production started for us I had people living in the factory. Typically, with any large productions, I get on the plane to China, but with technology nowadays we don’t need to do that. We would get daily reports, daily QC checks, third-party testing, so even though I wasn’t there it was like I was. Communication was robust. I felt comfortable with that. We delivered on all our contracts. We delivered in full. And the DHSC is on record: from 15,000 vendors [who applied] we delivered almost half the price and value, quality and speed.”

The DHSC insists that during this unprecedented time, it took advantage of every avenue to get PPE into the country, including working with companies that established productions and delivery routes outside of their normal business. The DHSC also states that it had to operate within clear Treasury guidance to ensure value for money was achieved – any offer not considered to be value for money was rejected.

A report made by the House Of Commons Public Accounts Committee outlined how 47 suppliers of PPE last year came through something called the “high-priority lane”. This was a special inbox set up to allow UK ministers, peers and senior civil servants to feed in their own contacts and leads in regards to the swift procurement of PPE by the special government task force. A great deal of the scandal surrounding the procurement of PPE stems from this high-priority lane list, the companies on it and the names of those who referred those companies.

Of the 47 suppliers added to this group, 12 were introduced directly by MPs, seven by peers and 18 by officials. According to the National Audit Office, suppliers – credible or otherwise – who appeared on this list were ten times more likely to win PPE contracts than others not on the list and without a competitive tender process. Many have said this is cause for grave concern about the issue of transparency and fairness in regards to the procurement of PPE and contracts won. Of the 47 listed companies, the government has thus far named only two. None of the UK ministers or officials who forwarded the recommendations to the lane have thus far been officially named.

Was Saiger aware of the high-priority lane, before or during his dealings with the DHSC? “No. Absolutely not. I would say that is more of a DHSC question, but absolutely not. We went on Twitter. We contacted them. It is as simple as that.” How quick was the whole process, though, from first contacting the DHSC to winning the contract? “It was pretty quick. It had to be quick. Look, all I can say about the DHSC, my experience with them, was that they were hard-working, professional people. I have a lot of respect for them.”

PPE suppliers on the ‘high-priority’ list were ten times more likely to win contracts

Given how much Andersson was paid and how quickly he was replaced, I try to ask Saiger about him. “I’m sure as you can probably understand, I can’t talk about Gabriel. All I can say about Gabriel is that an amicable resolution has been made. I can’t say much more than that. I am sure you can understand.”

Pretty soon after the BBC notified the world on 17 November in regards to the court case between Mr Andersson and Mr Saiger – and thus notified the world of Andersson’s very existence and his role in the procurement of PPE for the DHSC – it seems like the case was very quickly, very quietly dismissed and settled out of court. It wouldn’t be a huge leap to suggest that either of the parties didn’t much like all the publicity and resulting media scrutiny. Someone somewhere got spooked.

The only previous mention of Andersson in the media came in 2012, when Spanish newspaper El País named him as a distant “intermediary” during an official investigation into a Chinese migrant-turned-businessman called Gao Ping, who was accused of money laundering and tax evasion in a wide-ranging police clampdown called Operation Emperor led by Spanish authorities that year. This was reported in the UK by the Daily Mail in November last year.

Andersson’s inclusion in the Spanish report doesn’t suggest any wrongdoing on his part. There is no evidence whatsoever that Andersson knew of or is suspected of any criminality – he was not arrested himself or tried. GQ reached out to Andersson’s lawyers for comment for this story but received no reply.

I ask Saiger why the court case in Miami was dismissed. “All I can say about it is we’ve reached an amicable resolution.” In a bid to understand what specifically the government’s money was used for, I also ask Saiger to be more transparent about Andersson’s role in procuring PPE.

“All I can tell you is that at no time have we ever used a middleman,” he says. Saiger uses the term “middleman” – a term he introduces into our conversation – in reference to various news stories surrounding the UK government’s lack of transparency in regards to such contracts won and the roles all participants played.

“That’s nonsense,” he continues. “Never used a middleman. Look at the court filings and see, but I can tell you at no time have we ever used a middleman. Absolutely not. Look, I am happy to be scrutinised time and time again by the media – and the taxpayers have every right to do so – but I hope that between the lines people can read that all I wanted to do was help. I had the best intentions. I know what I did and I am proud of it.”

‘I’ve got a bulletproof vest, money abroad, Visas. For me, the act of trying to resist is a good thing’

I ask Saiger how much profit he himself made out of contracts worth in excess of £200m. “I don’t talk about the commercial side of my business in that way,” he explains. “Although the contracts are for very large sums, it is true, the cost to manufacture such quality products is very high.” Although he might not be willing on some issues, I have the feeling Saiger entirely understands the desire for transparency here. One suspects, despite being gagged, that he isn’t at all surprised about why people in the UK want to know how their money was spent by the government.

I press Saiger one final time on his ex-business partner; £21m is a lot of money, I stress. “Like I said, if you look at the total value of our contracts, there are so many costs and, associated with that, this can similarly be applied. But, you know, I hope that the British people can see that I helped.”

So were all those costings, including Andersson’s, part of the bid? That wasn’t a hidden cost? It was all part of the service he was going to deliver and transparently so? “Yes, it was all part of the bid.” Then, more emphatically, “Yes.” So Andersson wasn’t some hidden part of the bid and his role and his part in your team was fully transparent right from the beginning? “Yes. But obviously I can’t say very much more.”

I take what Saiger tells me to the DHSC, which insists it recognises the value of transparency in the awarding of public contracts and continuing to publish information about contracts awarded as soon as possible. If what Saiger tells me is correct and Andersson’s role was made clear and transparent in the bidding process, maybe the department can tell me why it felt comfortable with Andersson’s £21m fee? An invitation for the health secretary, Matt Hancock, to be interviewed for this article was declined, but the department sent a comment: “We have been working tirelessly to deliver PPE to the front line, with 9.5 billion items delivered so far and almost 32 billion items ordered to provide a continuous supply to meet the future needs of health and social care staff. Proper due diligence is carried out for all government contracts and we take these checks extremely seriously. All offers were prioritised based on volume, price, meeting clinical standards and the time it takes from an offer being accepted by DHSC to the supplier delivering those items.”

Start looking into Michael Saiger and the UK government’s PPE procurement scandal and very quickly you’ll come across a lawyer, a QC, called Jolyon Maugham. Maugham, 49, is a successful, highly paid tax lawyer-turned-activist, an anti-Establishment rebel dressed in tweed suits, who uses the power of the law to reveal purposely hidden truths. Brought up in rural New Zealand, he now lives in South London in a large house with a garden that backs onto a beautiful church. I won’t say much more about where he lives, as I am asked not to.

As a result of his work with a not-for-profit company called the Good Law Project (GLP), which he set up in 2017, he has received multiple death threats. The GLP states on its website that it “uses the law to protect the interests of the public. We fight cases that defend, define or change the law and we use litigation to engage and educate. We challenge abuses of power, exploitation, inequality and injustice.”

Maugham attends Edinburgh’s Court Of Session during his successful campaign to force the UK government to seek a Brexit extension, 8 October 2019

Maugham also received death threats from animal rights campaigners when, unconnected to his work, he tweeted on Boxing Day in 2019 that he had killed a fox that was stuck in his chicken coop in the very garden we are now standing. The tweet read, “Already this morning I have killed a fox with a baseball bat. How’s your Boxing Day going?” A following tweet also added, “I was in a kimono.” It turned out to be his wife’s kimono. Maugham won’t tell me he regrets killing the fox per se, as “nothing good will come of it. I do regret tweeting about it.” He does, however, blame himself: “I think if I hadn’t misread my adopted culture in the way in which I did, I would have done that better or not at all.

A little later he adds, “I have various weapons placed around the house.” We are sitting around a large, unlit fire pit. As we talk, ashes are whipped up around us like a grey blizzard. Maugham is wearing a yellow shirt with a mustard-coloured puffer gilet. He has on his feet thick red speckled socks and chocolate-brown Crocs. “We have various other security measures. We could leave the country quite quickly if we had to, if I believe there was a real threat to my family and myself.”

Maugham is well and truly a thorn in this government’s side. Where Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, in the eyes of many, offers all the dynamic opposition of a wet wipe, Maugham and his work with the GLP continually demands transparency and answers from a government that has little and provides none. As a “cause lawyer” or activist, he feels it is his imperative to sue governments for information he believes they withhold.

Maugham’s tactics are bombastic; he wields the power of Twitter like a mace – or a mace twinned with a megaphone – using social media to propel his cases into the public limelight, where he looks for support and, crucially, money to help him fight the good fight. A great deal of Maugham’s success, in fact, can be put down to agitating publicity and public attention for his various causes. It was, for example, Maugham’s doggedness and laser-guided “lawfare’” on Brexit – challenging Boris Johnson’s decision to prorogue parliament before the Brexit deadline in October 2019 and then taking legal action again over whether the UK could unilaterally decide to stay in the EU despite triggering Article 50 – that gained him particular notoriety.

‘There are still 125 contracts unpublished. Government is trying to hold back the tide’

The lawyer’s aim in regards to PPE procurement has been to find out whether or not contracts relating to Covid-19 have been properly awarded. His interest in Michael Saiger, like me, peaked in November last year, when the government finally published some, although not all, of the notices of contracts the designer won.

Dominic Cummings, with whom Maugham has clashed, leaves Ten Downing Street, 13 November 2020

Over a series of tweets on 17 November Maugham laid out his grievances and his case against the government: the fact they didn’t publish on time, the odd court case between Mr Andersson and Saiger in Miami, the suggestion that the government overpaid Saiger for 10.2m surgical gowns (“…a unit price of £6.91 – rather more than the £4.90 average govt’s leaked benchmarking doc shows we paid everyone else”) and the question of why the DHSC was buying 10.2m gowns in June from a single supplier who happened to have no previous experience in supplying PPE.

At the bottom of his Twitter thread Maugham posted a link to the GLP’s crowdfunding page in regards to this particular case. At the time of going to press the GLP had raised £68,027, with just three days to go to get to the stretch target of £100,000. It states, “Our focus isn’t on the individuals who made staggering profits from the pandemic. If the government is handing out free money, who can blame them for joining the queue? Our focus is on the government which let them. What were their reasons for deciding to award this huge contract to a jewellery specialist over other suppliers? Why did they pay over the odds for PPE? What steps did they take to satisfy themselves that Saiger was up to the job of delivering on such a huge order of PPE? Did they check the reliability of the subcontractor?”

Just before Christmas the GLP received a letter from the Commercial Law Group, the lawyers acting on behalf of the government. In regards to paying over the odds for gowns, this response tallies with the answer given to me by Saiger himself when I broached the issue of pricing. He told me, just as the government told the GLP, that the gowns Saiger LLC supplied were sterile surgical gowns, wrapped, rather than unwrapped, thus making them more expensive. Saiger explained, more bluntly, that to compare prices in this way, of sterile to non-sterile, was like “comparing a Honda to a BMW”. In response to the GLP, the government’s lawyers insisted, “Saiger’s unit price was approximately half the average price of offers made to the DHSC.”

I explain to Maugham about my conversations with Saiger, in which the designer confirmed to me that Andersson was in fact a transparent part of the bid for at least some of the contracts and that Andersson’s role, whatever it was specifically, wasn’t, according to Saiger, hidden from those handling the incoming PPE bids.

“What is quite interesting about that answer,” says Maugham, “is how do you as a government look at a counterparty like Andersson – who has a rather rich coverage in the Spanish press – and conclude in such a short time that this is an appropriate person to be buying PPE from? It’s not really a question for you, nor for me, but it is a decent question for the government.”

To say Maugham specialises in “decent questions for the government” is a bit like comparing a feather duster to a sledgehammer. Matt Hancock, a man who has continually suffered at the sharp end of Maugham’s “decent” questions, must fear the lawyer even more than he once feared a lashing from Piers Morgan on Good Morning Britain. Perhaps Maugham could take Morgan’s place? He’s certainly effective at agitating a response.

The GLP fought for a judicial review of the government’s action in regards to the PPE contracts and, in February, a judge ruled that Hancock had, in fact, acted “unlawfully” by failing to publish contracts within the required 30 days of the contract being signed. Hancock went on The Andrew Marr Show two days later and said he and his team had “spent all their time buying life-saving equipment, even if the paperwork was a little late”. Labour MP Nadia Whittome tweeted at the time, “In what other job could you break the law and be let off?”

Maugham adds to this: “Given how much pressure the government is under for its lack of transparency, for its failures to publish contracts, unlawful failures to publish contracts, you’d expect them just to say, ‘Well, yes, you know, we understand there is a legitimate public interest in people knowing where this £12.5bn spent on PPE went and why it went to these people. We agree! You should know! It’s your money, after all…’ But the fact that they so carefully stonewall all requests for information, stuff that is relatively anodyne, does make you curious. Nothing makes you want to know more about what is in a commercial contract than saying that it has all been redacted. We have uncovered, for example, that there are still 125 contracts that are as yet unpublished – and that’s by the government’s own numbers. They are still trying to hold back the tide.”

I ask Maugham what he’s looking for in all these contracts. What, I ask, if all those PPE contracts from 2020 were miraculously published tomorrow, what would he and his team of cause lawyers and activists go digging for? “We should be able to look at all of the prices that are paid for all those lines of PPE, during the currency of the pandemic, and check that they were broadly at the same price as was paid to everyone, whether you were a friend of a minister or not.” What do you get instead? “What in fact you get is a publication of a contract with all of the production prices blanked out. Of course, they’re not always very good at doing the redactions…”

Aren’t governments allowed to redact such things? “Well, we don’t think they are, actually. But they are doing it anyway. Later this week we’re going to bring forward the judicial review proceedings in relation to the non-publication of contracts. And we will look at that point about redactions as well. Because, you know, these were one-off, never-to-be-repeated prices in a highly volatile market and we just don’t think any genuine commercial confidentiality is attached to them.”

Maugham, previously a tax lawyer, in his South London home, 8 March 2021

© Jooney Woodward

Maugham’s work is not easy. A great deal relies on whistle-blowers. “You know, I have people who come to me with information. Sometimes that information is very, very good quality. Sometimes it is not. Generally speaking, what you get is a piece of the jigsaw, but you can only discern the whole picture if you have enough of the jigsaw pieces that you can logically reconstruct the whole. Working out which of the 500 emails in your inbox every day contains a piece of the jigsaw is difficult. Drawing the right logical inference from the piece of the puzzle that you have is difficult. And, of course, you’re doing this in respect to a number of different puzzles all at the same time and that too is difficult.”

What is frustrating for Maugham is those who come to him with a lead or a story but aren’t willing to put their head above the parapet. “They will tell me something staggering and then I will ask for the documents. ‘Oh, I can show you the documents, but you can’t use them.’ Then I ask if they will go on record. ‘Oh, sorry. I couldn’t possibly do that.’ So I am left in the position that I am bursting with stories, with my hands tied. It’s even worse than not knowing; knowing but not being able to say.”

I ask Maugham, hypothetically, what if the UK government now comes out and admits that they’ve given preferential treatment in the procurement of PPE in 2020 to their chums through the high-priority lane and the reason given is because their friends were on hand? And let’s pretend that they admit they paid too much for it. The reason given? Because it was a deeply chaotic time and they just wanted to get the equipment to the hospitals as quickly as they could. Surely, at this stage, I moot, it would be a better look for the government to do this now rather than just delaying, going through the courts and just hoping the scandal will blow over? Which, if Maugham has his way, it most certainly won’t.

Maugham pauses and chuckles to himself, apparently weighing up what he will say next carefully. “It is always tempting to run a unifying theory of all this stuff. I think the truth is, you know, lots of different things are all true in different cases. I’ve even heard it rumoured that people were told that for a payment of commission their offer could be placed on the desk of the decision-maker. And I’ve got that information from second-grade sources, which I wouldn’t take very seriously, although, you know, the fact that it comes from a number of different people makes you take it seriously.” GQ took Maugham’s comments to the DHSC, which replied saying only that the usual legal channels for Maugham to challenge the government were available. Maugham also mentions to me sources regarding this case that he feels are more promising; yet he admits more work needs to be done.

The fact that people like yourself, I note, have to sue the government to get the information we want – and by law have a right to – that’s not a great sign that our democracy is working properly, is it? “We are supposed to have a freedom-of-information regime,” the QC replies, his tone measured and precise, as it remains throughout our conversation. “Instead, this government hates transparency so much that the only way they will tell you anything is if you tool up with lawyers that cost hundreds, if not thousands, of pounds an hour. We are good at what we do here, but winning judicial review cases is really hard. And the government is spending in such a way that if we win, we could win half a dozen in a row. But if we lose one or two, we’d be dead. That’s not a sustainable model. There is no form of accountability that they are prepared to recognise as being part of a healthy, functioning democracy.”

Although he isn’t able to pin anything directly on the prime minister, Maugham is only too aware that this issue goes right to the top. “[Boris Johnson] is fully aware of who I am. If I am a problem that lands on his desk, it’s not so much that I care – it delights me. It means we are being effective.”

Maugham has no intention of downing tools. Although funding to the GLP is healthy – about half of its income comes from thousands of individuals who support the not-for-profit with monthly direct debits of between £5 and £40; the expected income for 2021 is more than £3m – he tells me he is selling some of his own assets in order to raise further funds.

Perhaps surprisingly, Maugham doesn’t think that all politicians are out-and-out evil. He also doesn’t think that is really the question one should be asking. He’s not interested in morality; he’s interested in the consequences of how moral people behave. “I do think the Conservative Party is only interested in power. They have always looked after their own.”

‘I do think this is corrosive to democracy. I do think it could be described as evil’

One only needs to look at the more recent scandal surrounding former prime minister David Cameron, Greensill and the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, to contemplate examples of the party’s alleged “chumocracy”. “I do think that has a hugely corrosive effect on democracy. And I do think that the corrosive effect on democracy could be described as evil. [Dominic] Cummings was the best example of all this.”

Cummings, of course, was the prime minister’s chief advisor until he was very publicly and unceremoniously “asked” by Boris Johnson to step down and leave Downing Street in November last year. For many, ardent Brexiter Cummings was at the very axis of a toxic, macho “do as I say, not as I do” culture within government. Accusations abounded at the time that towards the end of his tenure Cummings even briefed against the prime minister. “Cummings was undeniably successful,” adds Maugham. “But his success wasn’t a function of him being cleverer than anyone else. It was a function of him being completely amoral and just not caring about anything other than getting what he wanted. As David Cameron pointed out, he’s a career psychopath.”

Now Cummings has left, will the culture improve in government? “I don’t think Cummings has left, actually.” Maugham had his own run-in with Cummings, it turns out, during the Brexit referendum. The pair, Maugham tells me, at first had a healthy regard for one another, but during a case that the New Zealander himself was bringing – a piece of litigation that became known as Vince vs Johnson, concerning whether or not the prime minister could be forced to send the letter to the European Union requesting an extension to Article 50 – Cummings turned. “He blogged about me repeatedly and tried to crowdsource a referral of me to my professional regulator.” Maugham is also convinced, without evidence, that Cummings briefed against him and his work to various parts of the UK media, including the Sunday Times

Although Maugham understands very well that the job he does, and the powerful political and ideological forces he spars with, carries risk, he is naturally worried about his own and his family’s safety. (One only has to remember the brutal murder of Jo Cox in 2016 by Thomas Mair, then 52, a man with psychiatric problems who allegedly shouted “Britain first” as he attacked.) “I did get ready to leave the country because of it. I had people trying to break into the house. I’ve got a bulletproof vest. And we have plans in place if we need to leave the country sharpish. Money abroad. Visas…”

At the end of talking to someone such as Maugham, who, far beyond what most private citizens can do, is able to see into the blackened guts of a country, how it is run and by whom, it is easy to leave feeling somewhat pessimistic, a little defeated. If Maugham and the GLP can’t hold truth to power, what hope do the rest of us have? Why, I ask, does Maugham even bother? Why not burn the bridges? Pop the cork. Run for the hills. Save himself.

“Well, the things I derive pride from. I feel very proud about being able to create space for others to say what I say. British society is very good at extracting conformism from people and charging a very high price to those who will not conform. I think that is unhealthy. I like to push back at those orthodoxies and when people tell me that they find it easier to push back against those orthodoxies because I do, well, I find that very, very rewarding personally. For me, merely the act of trying to resist is a good thing.”

I say my goodbyes to Maugham, exit through the house, past his basement office where more pieces of the jigsaw arrive by the minute – “ping”, “ping”, “ping” – each email loaded with corruption and hope, each awaiting to be scrutinised. Strolling back towards the nearest Tube station, a crumpled-up facemask in my hand, I have an overwhelming feeling that I’m leaving with more questions than when I arrived.

Maybe, I think, that’s entirely the point. 

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