John Mills: 'There are many Labour MPs who do want out of Europe but won’t say so'

John Mills, home-shopping tycoon, Labour donor and Vote Leave backer, is working up a sales pitch for Brexit. As he tells Margareta Pagano, firms that want to stay in are spreading scare stories 

John Mills is rather good at selling ironing board covers. He has sold around 25 million of them around the world, and reckons that one in three of all UK households have one.

Now he wants us all to buy Brexit; not such a smooth ride perhaps. Yet the 77-year-old multi-millionaire founder of JML, the TV home-shopping channel, is confident that Britain’s 45 million voters can be persuaded to leave the European Union at the forthcoming referendum.

“The latest polls are looking much stronger for the ‘outers’. It’s interesting that men and women are showing similar voting patterns, whereas in the Scottish referendum women were more cautious,” he says.

“But it’s going to be one hell of a fight – every vote is going to count. I don’t believe the public is apathetic at all. When the referendum does come, I expect there will be a pretty high turnout.” 

Mr Mills is the new chairman of Vote Leave, the cross-party lobbying group that is likely to be the official organisation leading the outers into the referendum, and this week he also became general secretary of the Labour Leave lobby. 

As well as giving a “six-figure sum” to Vote Leave, Mr Mills is still Labour’s biggest private financial backer – although he didn’t vote for Jeremy Corbyn. (Liz Kendall first, then Yvette Cooper.) So it’s no surprise he caused a stir this week when he called on Mr Corbyn to give MPs a free vote. “There are many Labour MPs who do want out but daren’t say so.” 

More worrying for him, though, must be the news that the money men at Goldman Sachs, and maybe JP Morgan, are giving substantial funds to the Britain Stronger in Europe campaign. With uncanny timing, David Cameron also came out urging business to make the case for staying in a reformed European Union. Not so, claims Mr Mills. “These look like the same people who were telling us many years ago that if we did not join the euro, inward investment would dry up as everyone would lose confidence in our economy. Wrong then and wrong now.” 

Indeed, he says the big corporates are still using scare tactics to stop people voting for “out”, just as they did in the 1975 referendum when he first started campaigning to get the UK out.  “I believe that leaving the EU would allow the UK to negotiate more advantageous trade deals and the City would be largely unaffected. Cameron has missed a fantastic opportunity to get a proper deal. Personally, I think we should leave and then renegotiate.”

Nor does he expect big money from the big – and mainly US – companies that “tend to like the EU because its centralised bureaucratic structure suits them.” 

Instead, most of the backing for Vote Leave is coming from nimbler, more entrepreneurial companies and individuals. And he is confident it will be able to raise the £13m to £20m needed to mount a high-visibility and national advertising campaign once the date is declared.

His co-treasurer is the Tory backer and CMC online trading tycoon Peter Cruddas, who has given £1m. Other big donors include the spread-better Stuart Wheeler, hedge fund owner Crispin Odey, Alexander Hoare, managing director of the Hoare & Co bank, and the Argent property mogul Michael Freeman. 

Mr Mills says he is happy to work alongside Tory supporters: “There aren’t any problems between us despite our differing politics. We just muck in together; this is bigger than party politics.” 

We meet in JML’s head office cum warehouse, which he built in 1998 on a scruffy industrial estate a stone’s throw from Kentish Town Tube in north London. His office is small and ordinary, and his desk is stacked with bundles of brown files. 

One wall displays JML’s products alongside photographs of his late wife, Barbara Mills, the first woman to become Director of Public Prosecutions. “Now she was someone who knew how to break glass ceilings,” he says. 

There are pictures of his children – three daughters and a son, all of whom have been involved in some way with the business, and one daughter who is a non-executive director.

As well as ironing board covers, he sells around 1,000 products including everything from sports bras to rotating brushes that promise to clean the dirt out of grouting. Most of JML’s products are sold through the big supermarket chains alongside the JML TV channel.  

He owns 70 per cent of the company, with senior directors and staff owning the balance. “We’ve a strong culture here with a good work-life balance; my style is tight-loose but hopefully it’s a fun place to work. My best hire was bringing in Ken Daly, who answered a newspaper ad for a young sales rep 21 years ago. He is now chief executive.” 

JML employs 320 people in London and Newcastle, having closed most of its overseas offices. Sales last year were around £80m, with pre-tax profits of £5m.

Mr Mills has been selling, and making, household products for a living more or less since he left university at Oxford. He tried his hand at manufacturing but the business went bust in the mid-1980s – a disaster for which he blames the strong pound.

If getting out of the EU has been his crusade, getting the pound down and manufacturing up is the Holy Grail. He still blames the strong currency for most of our economic ills and last year co-wrote a book, Call to Action, with Bryan Gould, the former Labour MP. 

“Last year we modelled what it would cost us to make 20 of our products  – which are currently made in China – here.  Frankly, it’s a pain to make things in China; the shipping takes so long, the language. 

“Half of them were so expensive to make, there was no point. We couldn’t find the manufacturers capable of making the other 10 products  – which need electric motors. Isn’t it bonkers? Britain can’t make small electric motors, or even blenders.”

The only products JML does make are pillows – because of the volume they take up – and cleaning agents, because of the weight in transportation. 

Mr Mills blames both Labour and Tories for destroying the manufacturing base – now down to 10 per cent of GDP. He would like to see it back up to around 15 per cent and the pound devalued by up to a third. “It depends on your ambition. If you want growth rates of between 4 per cent and 5 per cent, which I think entirely possible, we should look at a big devaluation.

“The only way of getting back on track is to increase output  by investing in machinery and technology. But at the moment investment in those areas is uneconomic because the exchange rate is too high. You’ve got to make it profitable to invest.”

Has he been in touch with John McDonnell, Labour’s shadow Chancellor, to discuss his views? Yes, he says, but he doesn’t sound too convinced. 

Getting out of the EU would be a start, he adds, saving the UK at least £11bn net a year. “Tougher border controls would help with jobs and wages too. At least two-thirds of all new jobs have gone to migrant workers.” 

If he were a betting man, what odds would he put on the UK leaving? “It’s terribly hard to predict but you can see why David Cameron and George Osborne want the referendum as soon as possible, in case there is a another eurozone banking meltdown – which is entirely possible. Or more problems with migration.” 

I tell him I have a private bet on a September referendum – resulting in an out vote.  “Well, I wouldn’t sell that bet.”  

 

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