Ironically, it was none other than John McDonnell, Labour’s shadow chancellor under Jeremy Corbyn, who was responsible for his newfound activism. Until three years ago, the tycoon was focused on his philanthropic work, staying out of politics except to make a one-off donation to Bill Cash’s Brexit campaign. But a public clash with Labor in 2019 convinced him he needed to get involved.
Told that Caudwell had threatened to leave the UK if Corbyn won power, McDonnell invited the billionaire to debate with him over a cup of tea. Caudwell not only turned up, but offered a spirited and headline-grabbing defense of why Britain needed more entrepreneurs to create wealth, hitting out at what he called “divisive” rhetoric.
Afterwards, he remained so concerned that within 24 hours he had met with Johnson and days later agreed to make a six-figure donation to the Tories. “From the Labor Party, there was anti-Semitism, there was communistic talk and rich people being decried and I really felt quite passionate about that,” he explains. “I thought if Labor got in, I’ll leave. Not because of the tax rate, I might add. It was because I would have lost a huge sense of pride in Britain.
“One of the bizarre things [Labour] said was that no billionaire should ever exist. If it were me, I’d be saying ‘We really want you, we admire you in this country. But we want you to pay a little bit more.’ If you’ve got a goose that lays the golden egg, help the goose to prosper. Don’t slit its throat.”
Could he ever support Labor under Starmer? “The Labor Party has improved considerably since getting rid of Corbyn. But — and it’s a big but — I still think that, hidden below the surface, there’s a lot of communist attitudes against wealth. The insults about billionaires and the creation of jealousy, animosity and hatred among the working classes about rich people are counterproductive.”
Certainly, if Labor had been hoping for an easy target, it would have been better to pick someone else.
Caudwell, who flies his own helicopter to business meetings, defies political stereotypes. Sitting in his home office, where pictures of Margaret Thatcher and airborne Spitfires hang on the wall, he says he always felt that a successful business career and charitable work were part of his “destiny.” As a seven-year-old, he had a vision of himself sitting in the back of a chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce, handing out five pound notes to the poor.
Coming from a working class lad in Stoke-on-Trent, this would probably have sounded far-fetched to his peers. “I had no inspiration at all,” he says. “In fact, most of the people I was surrounded by were the opposite of inspirational.” He had a fraught relationship with his father, who could be bullying and did not give him “the love or fairness that I would have liked.” When Caudwell was 14, his father suffered the first of two strokes and died four years later.
But today the entrepreneur is worth an estimated £1.5bn and boasts a property empire spanning his mansion and grounds in Staffordshire, the house in Mayfair, a ski property in Vail, Colorado, a home in Monaco and commercial properties he hopes to let to the super rich.
It is a real-life rags-to-riches story, started after Caudwell abandoned his A-levels to train as an apprentice car mechanic at the local Michelin tire plant.
He later set up his own car dealership and founded the mobile empire that would go on to make his fortune. His business from him, which included retailer Phones 4U and phone service provider Singlepoint, which was sold to Vodafone in 2003, eventually came to employ 12,000 staff and boasted sales of £2.4bn a year.
He sold out to private equity in 2006, just before the financial crisis struck. Was that luck, or judgement?
“This will sound conceited,” he says, “but it was pure judgment. I saw a recession coming. All the money was being squeezed out of mobile phones, top to bottom. The luck was that it took me 18 months to sell. If I hadn’t sold then, I wouldn’t have got it away, because the world was beginning to collapse.
There were other reasons as well. “I wanted to be de-risked and to have the time, have the money, to do more for charitable causes. And it just all came together.”
His career was often far from smooth sailing. A supplier nearly toppled his business from him by cutting him off in the 1990s, while in the early 2000s Singlepoint faced criticism from customers for poor service and its aggressive approach to sales.
A BBC documentary detailing life at the company depicted Caudwell as an uncompromising boss who did not tolerate failure. Potential recruits were screened for ruthless attributes, with interviewers asking whether they were prepared to sell things they didn’t believe in. Some customers claimed they were signed up to contracts they didn’t want. Looking back, does he think things ever went too far, or even strayed into unethical territory?
“We did give very poor service at times,” he admits. But he puts this down to growing pains, as well as “isolated incidents” involving a small number of staff.
“We were recruiting guys in Stoke-on-Trent out of the collieries and the potteries and they needed training,” he adds. “We were growing so fast that we couldn’t keep up and we made a lot of mistakes. But we were inundated because we were such good value. Would I do anything differently? No. You are always going to get complaints and we put massive effort into fixing things.”
These days, he spends most of his time on charitable pursuits. He has also stepped up to “do his bit” during the Ukraine crisis, housing a mother and son who have fled the war. They live in a converted coach house at Caudwell’s Staffordshire home and are “doing OK”, he says. “We’ve supplied them with everything — a car, food, a house — but they’re desperately sad because her husband’s on the front line and, as much as she’s got a comfortable and safe life here, she’d rather be with her family.”
He founded Caudwell Children, a charity that helps disabled children, in 2000. The organization’s running costs are paid from his own pocket and the charity has supported 65,000 children and families. There have been controversies, however, with the charity criticized in the past for directing the families towards unproved treatments such as “ion cleansing” foot baths and homeopathy, as well as doctors who have spoken against vaccination.
Caudwell insists the allegations were unfair and that the charity does “nothing except recommended stuff”, adding: “It’s not who we are at all.” Instead, he points to examples such as a little boy with cerebral palsy whose “legs didn’t work” until they sent him to the US for an operation and paid for years of physiotherapy. Later, at a fundraising ball, the same delighted boy ran on to the stage and jumped into Caudwell’s arms.
How did he feel at that moment? “Beyond speech, do you know?” he says, becoming visibly emotional. “Give me all the boats in the world, all the meals in the world, all the wine in the world, I don’t give a toss. But the amount of change I’ve created in people’s lives massively satisfies me spiritually.”
He also supports charities dedicated to the research of chronic Lyme disease, which several members of his family have been diagnosed with, and the autoimmune disorders PANS and PANDAS, which his son Rufus, 24, has suffered from, spending long periods bedridden and experiencing panic attacks and agoraphobia.
“We spent 15 years trying to fix him. He’s getting a bit better now – but for the average kid, it’s a horrendous condition which destroys their life completely. That’s next on my agenda in terms of trying to get the medical profession to recognize, which the vast majority don’t.”
We are briefly interrupted by a visit from Modesta and William. “Hello darling!” he smiles, waving. Caudwell, who has five adult children from previous relationships, says being a new father at 69 has its advantages — these days he has more time to spend with his youngest than him.
“Fifteen years ago, I couldn’t have had that interruption,” he smiles. “With my other kids, I always tried to do the sports days, prize days and school theatres, but I was working huge amounts of hours so it was very difficult. Now, I have got the luxury of spending time with William, and really enjoying the nuances of how he changes every day. And that’s really fabulous.”
Caudwell is full of energy. “I’m young for my age,” he says. Is that due to the fasting? Caudwell—who obsesses over healthy eating—speaks evangelically about the health benefits. Some experts believe fasting triggers autophagy, a natural process where by cells in the body are regenerated. How does he fight back the hunger? “It’s a state of mind,” he says, tapping his finger on his temple.
What does he do to relax? “I cycle as much as I possibly can,” he says. But does he ever just relax, like the rest of us? “I don’t really need to. Sometimes relaxing to me is more stressful than not relaxing. My worst nightmare is being on a beach, lying in the sun.”
Following his foray into political funding campaigns, he jokes that some people on social media have even suggested he should be prime minister before adding, almost too quickly: “Which I have never considered.”
He has offered to be an unpaid adviser to Johnson on multiple occasions, to no avail, he says. As leadership speculation swirls, he brings up Liz Truss (“good, but lacking in personality”) and Jeremy Hunt (“potentially a strong candidate”), but reserves particularly high praise for Nadhim Zahawi (“he is a businessman and a really solid pair of hands”).
Why does he feel it’s important for him to have a voice? “I absolutely believe I can add huge value to the Government, in certain circumstances. But if they don’t like what I’ve got to say, I wouldn’t object to that.”
What is clear is that John Caudwell still has a lot to say.