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David Meller: Exploring the Political Nexus Behind the Michael Gove Ally Given Controversial £164 million PPE Deals

After being awarded six large PPE contracts the Conservative donor was last year elevated to the prestigious UK Board of Trade by Kemi Badenoch

Michael Gove, David Meller, Kemi Badenoch. Background: PPE during Covid crisis and sample contract

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As David Meller toasted the New Year at the beginning of 2018, he surely felt he could do no wrong.

The successful businessman was not only very rich, with a £22 million home in the heart of Mayfair, another place in the hills of Los Angeles, a chauffeur-driven Range Rover, and a jet-set lifestyle which took him around the world to schmooze on the yachts of even wealthier friends.

He had also, through his work in business, education, sport, and thanks to regular donations to the Conservative Party, built up a vast nexus of political contacts.

They included not only the Education Secretary Michael Gove, for whom Mr Meller ran a leadership campaign, and future Chancellor Nadhim Zahawi. Meller had even hosted a peace summit for the warring advisors of Conservative giants Prime Minister Theresa May and her predecessor David Cameron.

As a result, Meller had been awarded a place on the Department for Education’s (DfE) board of directors by Gove himself, and Ms May had made him a CBE in her 2018 New Year’s honours list for ‘services to education’.

But within three weeks it had all come crashing down, after the men-only President’s Club, of which he was co-chairman, became mired in a sexual harassment controversy.

Forced to quit the DfE board, although allowed to keep his CBE, Meller’s political career seemed over.

But somehow, it wasn’t.

Having quietly maintained his links behind the scenes at Westminster, Meller stayed close to Gove. So close, it turned out, that Gove allegedly referred Meller’s beauty company, Meller Designs, to the ‘VIP Lane’ at the height of the pandemic. It had, as a result, been awarded six large Government contracts to supply £164 million of PPE.


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David Meller was referred to the ‘VIP Lane’ by his long-term political ally Michael Gove

It was a transaction that has since caused Gove and the Government an ongoing headache as it battles widespread allegations of ‘cronyism’ – heightened after Meller was last year elevated to the UK’s prestigious Board of Trade by Business and Trade Secretary Kemi Badenoch, who Gove was a friend and ‘mentor’ to. 

This week the Guardian reported that Gove had failed to register that he had been entertained by Meller in VIP corporate hospitality at a football match four months after Gove’s referral in May 2020, which Gove claimed was an “oversight”.

Now a court case Meller has brought against a former business associate, reported exclusively by Byline Times earlier this month, is likely to cause the Government further headaches – particularly in a General Election year. 

The commercial litigation case has seen Meller admit to a “penchant to…delete emails…after they had been actioned…in the usual course of business,” including through the period he negotiated over PPE with the Government.

It also heard Meller had done several multi-million-pound property deals without bothering to put contracts in place, instead allegedly agreeing to one worth around £1.4 million in association with his super-rich financier friend Michael Sherwood via a single WhatsApp message, and that he tended not to work from a computer or laptop.

Meller is also said to have allowed his son, Jonathan, to conduct business on his behalf, despite Meller Jnr not yet being 30 at the time to which the litigation relates. 

But then, it could be argued, Meller’s not your usual multi-millionaire businessman. 

‘Fuelled by Struggle with Dyslexia’

Born in 1959 to German refugees, Meller attended a comprehensive school, earned four O-levels, and “struggled with dyslexia”. 

Aside from giving him the drive to make money, and lots of it (Meller once owned a six-storey Victorian townhouse in Mayfair that he sold in 2015 to the Qatari ruling family for more than £40 million), it was an experience that first fuelled his interest in education, which would in time lead to his long-standing friendship with Gove. 

In 1987 Meller and his older brother, Charles, took over as joint chief executives of Julius A. Meller Ltd of London, a “diversified manufacturing company” set up in 1913 by his grandfather and later run by his father. 

The business would later be renamed Meller Designs, a Bedford-based “cosmetics and luxury goods” company through which he brokered the PPE contracts, and which he ran with Charles alongside a range of other companies. 

It is not known when and how Meller came to meet Mr Sherwood, the controversial and incredibly rich Goldman Sachs executive with whom he struck up an ongoing business relationship and whose joint dealings are currently being scrutinised in court, but they joined the board of Watford Football Club together in November 1999, before departing the same week in January 2004.

The pair oversaw a turbulent time at Vicarage Road. Badly hit by relegation from the Premiership in 2000 and a disastrous season of extravagant spending under former coach Gianluca Vialli, the club struggled financially. The Hornets lost £10.3 million in 2003 and only avoided administration in 2002 by getting their players and senior staff to agree to a 12 per cent wage deferral.

Between July 2003 and March 2005, Meller and Sherwood, along with another former Watford director, personally paid the circa £300,000 wages of striker Danny Webber, after he signed from Manchester United. With the trio entitled to around 60 percent of any future transfer fee, Webber was sold in June 2005 to Sheffield United for £500,000, which would have seen them share a profit after their investment of around £20,000, or £6,666 each


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The Meller family involvement in sport did not end there. Meller’s son, Jonathan, with whom Meller is a majority shareholder in an investment company, was later involved in a small football agency, which has not filed accounts since its inception in 2019. 

Despite a lack of boardroom success, Meller’s time at Watford did allow him to make an impact on the world of education, as he and Sherwood “drove forward” the club’s sponsorship of the Harefield Academy, a £24 million school in Uxbridge, West London. Given the green light in early 2004 by then Secretary of State for Education, Charles Clarke, it opened in 2008, and would later educate England and Man United star Jadon Sancho. 

In 2009, Meller’s passion for education saw him set up the Meller Educational Trust, which makes grants to education organisations, and ran four schools and a university technical college. That year he began funding the Conservatives, and he has since donated around £60,000 to Tory MPs – including £3,250 to Gove – and the central party.

In 2011 Meller was made a trustee and director of the Conservative-leaning think tank Policy Exchange, which was founded in 2002 by Gove, and Tory grandee Francis Maude.  

Two years later Meller became the “main backer” of a new school in Elstree, Herts, founded to train students for “back of house” jobs in television, film and theatre, for which he was named in the Evening Standard‘s list of London’s most influential people.

It is likely to have been around this period in the early 2010s that Meller came into regular contact with Gove, who as Education Secretary was a passionate supporter of academies, and Dominic Cummings, then Gove’s special advisor, who would later go on to become the Chief Adviser to Prime Minister Boris Johnson during the pandemic.

In June 2013 Meller was rewarded by Gove with a place on the Department for Education board as a non-executive member, where he “advise[d] on strategy, operations and the deliverability of policy” while “scrutinising (DfE) delivery and performance”.

Meller also, in 2014, began serving as co-chair of the National Apprenticeship Ambassador Network and the Apprenticeship Delivery Board, alongside future Conservative minister Nadim Zahawi. The role saw him report to Skills minister Robert Halfon MP, who would in 2015 become deputy chairman of the Conservative Party and received £1,843 from Meller to pay for lawyers in the Mark Clark bullying episode. (An investigation by the law firm Clifford Chance costing £2m identified 13 alleged victims of Clarke, who was appointed by the Conservative Party to run its RoadTrip2015 general election campaign.)

Having sold his Mayfair mansion to the Qataris, Meller bought an apartment close by in December 2016 for £22 million, his star on the rise, and by 2017, he was very much at the heart of London politics – joining social mobility charity the Mayor’s Fund for London as a trustee in June – as well as having become a major player in the Conservative Party. 

After he helped run Michael Gove’s brief and unsuccessful 2016 leadership campaign, in October 2017 Meller hosted a dinner at his home between some of PM Theresa May’s and David Cameron’s closest allies, organised to “bury differences and agree on policies to get the Government back on track”.

Meller – who was reported at the time by The Sunday Times as being “prepared to fund a new organisation to devise policies that can help… restore the party’s fortunes” – was rewarded for his loyalty to the Conservatives by Ms May, who handed him a CBE in the 2018 New Year’s Honours list for “services to education”. 

“I’m thrilled and really proud,” Meller said at the time. “It was a complete surprise, I was over the moon. My heart missed a beat. Obviously, the work I do in apprenticeships and education, I get a real kick out of it.”


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Fall and Rise

But Meller’s ascent through the world of politics collapsed weeks later in January 2018 when the Presidents Club, for which he was co-chairman, was exposed by the Financial Times for not preventing the sexual harassment of its female hosts. 

The scandal centred around its “secretive” black-tie dinner, compèred by comedian David Walliams and which hosted a number of high-profile figures, including Meller’s former colleague Mr Zahawi. Zahawi had that month been appointed Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Department for Education and was a guest on Meller’s table, along with then Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for Business, Richard (now Lord) Harrington, Labour life peer and lobbyist Lord Johnathan Mendelsohn, and several leading British financiers and businessmen. 

Jonathan Meller, himself a Presidents Club committee member, was on a table sponsored by one of his businesses, alongside West Ham United’s porn baron owner David Sullivan. 

There is no suggestion the allegations related to Meller or his son, Zahawi, Mr Harrington, Mr Sullivan, or Mr Mendelsohn, although Mendelsohn was asked to step down from his front-bench role in the wake of the storm, despite publicly decrying what had occurred that night.

Following a clamour of outrage, Meller resigned from the DfE’s board, the apprenticeship delivery board, and the Mayor’s Fund for London. He did, however, keep his CBE title, of which he is said to be fond, and often refers to himself by.

While the scandal might have meant curtains for most in public life, Meller somehow managed to cling on to his links to the Government, and most notably Gove, which paid off – and how – come the pandemic.

In August 2020, the Sunday Times revealed Meller Designs had been given a number of contracts to provide coveralls, gloves, respirator masks and hand sanitiser.


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Pointing to Meller’s links to Gove – who in his post as the Cabinet Office Minister in charge of Government procurement, had a duty to ensure that all contracts were awarded “based on value for money… achieved through competition” – it said that in May 2020, the Government ordered £65m worth of Type IIR masks, from Meller Designs, the equivalent of 168 million face coverings.

With the order successfully fulfilled, a Meller Designs spokesman said at the time: “We are extremely proud of the role we played at the height of the crisis and managed to secure more than 150 million items of PPE.”

But the following month, in September 2020, Byline Times revealed Meller Designs had been awarded two contracts worth a total of £81.8 million – taking its overall Government earnings during the Coronavirus crisis to more than £148 million. 

In November 2021, it was reported that Gove had referred Meller Designs to the Government’s ‘VIP lane’. 

The now-infamous fast-track system was put in place for friends and donors of the Conservative Party to get PPE contracts at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, with the National Audit Office later finding that companies referred as potential PPE suppliers by Government ministers, MPs or NHS bosses were 10 times more likely to secure contracts. 

While the Cabinet Office told Byline Times that “ministers had no involvement in these procurement decisions”, it added: “Potential suppliers often passed on offers of PPE to…ministers – and these offers were then passed onto professional procurement specialists for assessment, with due diligence carried out on all companies in advance of procurement and every company subjected to the same checks.”

Gove is not believed to have made any further statement regarding his apparent involvement in referring Meller Designs to the scheme. He did not respond to any of the questions put to him regarding his long-standing relationship with Meller, including whether it was still ongoing, his thoughts on Meller’s “remarkable” business practices, or the PPE contracts arrangement.

Last December The Good Law Project uncovered internal Government documents that showed that in three contracts with Meller Designs, the Government paid between 1.2 and 2.2 times the average unit price. The average price for medical gowns was £5.87 but the gowns bought from Meller Designs cost £12.64. About £8.46m worth of the equipment supplied by Meller Designs was also found to be not used in an NHS setting.

A spokesperson for Meller Designs said then: “We are extremely proud of the role we played at the height of the Covid-19 crisis and managed to secure more than 100m items of PPE – including masks, sanitiser, coveralls and gloves direct from the manufacturers – at a time when they were most needed. This PPE was used in hospitals and by emergency services throughout the country.”

It is not clear why the amount of PPE Meller Designs said it had supplied had dropped from 150 million pieces in August 2020 to 100 million last December. The Cabinet Office refused to comment, directing us instead to Meller Designs. (Meller did not return our request for comment on this matter or any of the other matters reported in this article, and nor did Sherwood.)

Meller, though, still very much in with the Conservative Party, was again rewarded by the Government last September when he became one of 13 people appointed by Business and Trade Secretary Kemi Badenoch to the new-look Board of Trade, an influential body which advises the Government on policy. 


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The Department for Business and Trade told Byline Times that advisers are “appointed because of their expertise in trade and economic matters and to help inform our future thinking on international trade”.  

Referring directly to Meller the department said he was “a businessman with relevant experience that we believe will be valuable to the Board of Trade”, and that “all advisers must undergo and pass due diligence processes prior to their appointment, including David Meller.”

“It is a basic principle that people, including public figures, should be allowed to take up work and public appointments for which they are qualified when there is no legal reason to obstruct that,” it added. Badenoch did not reply to Byline Times’ requests for comment.

At the time of his appointment – which the Department for Business and Trade has confirmed to this newspaper was a “direct…appointment” of Ms Badenoch, who was until recently extremely close to Gove – Anneliese Dodds, Labour Party chairwoman, said it smacked of cronyism.  

She said: “The message from the Conservative Government remains clear: give tens of thousands of pounds to the Tories and you’ll be catapulted into positions of power and rewarded with lucrative contracts.”

David Meller, currently back at the top of the business and political world, appears to be the embodiment of that very message.  How, in a General Election year, Meller’s ongoing links to Gove and the Government, his role in the continuing PPE saga, and now a self-inflicted court battle – with the case to be heard in November – might impact all that remains to be seen.

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