Pole position: Simon Dolan now owns his own motorsports team
Simon Dolan, the multi-millionaire entrepreneur challenging the Government’s lockdown in the High Court, divides opinion. To the 250,000 supporters of his Keep Britain Free movement, he’s a champion of small businesses devastated by ever-stricter lockdown restrictions.
His opponents, however, accuse the businessman of being ‘selfish’ and ‘killing people’ – and have sent anonymous death threats on social media.
Dolan, 51, shrugs off the trolls – ‘they’re just words on a screen; if you don’t like it, delete it’ – and says the longer the lockdown continues, the quieter his critics become.
Now Health Secretary Matt Hancock has introduced the Rule of Six and 10pm curfews, Dolan says ‘around 99 per cent’ of the messages he receives are supportive – including thousands of letters and emails from small business owners.
‘They have written to me saying, ‘Thank you so much for what you are doing and this is my situation’, and they spend a long time typing these emails out,’ he says. ‘In a way you are acting almost as a therapist – it seems to be a way in which they can get their predicament off their mind and explain it to someone who understands.
‘They have tried Public Health England, they have tried their MP, but no one actually understands – and I suppose I do.’
Dolan, who grew up in a three-bed semi in Essex, says he can empathise with firms struggling to survive Covid because he made his £200million fortune through ‘hard graft’, starting out selling eggs and cheese on a market stall in Chelmsford before building up a portfolio of businesses spanning from aviation to software and motorsports.
Speaking from his chateau in France – one of his eight homes alongside a £15million Caribbean estate on Mustique that was once owned by David Bowie – Dolan says he relates to small business owners because, ‘I know how hard you have to work, and how much you have to put yourself on the line.’
He says: ‘Any death is tragic, and I’m not trying to say the economy is more important than people’s lives. But there are people who have been working for 50 years to build a business and now they’re screwed – they are trying to do everything they can to stay open, and the public health officials are putting more and more restrictions in place and no one wants to come.’
He believes the full economic impact of the lockdown won’t be felt until next year, when he thinks employment will spiral to six million and businesses will have to start repaying loans taken out to survive the crisis. ‘Hospitality businesses will still be crippled – you won’t see football stadiums at full capacity next spring – and they will have to start repaying loans out of taxed profits, which they probably won’t be making,’ he says.
‘That’s when we’re really going to see problems kicking in. The Government should instruct the banks to waive the loans – otherwise those businesses are going to go bust and the banks are going to come to the Government for 80 per cent.’ Dolan’s own businesses include Jota Aviation, a chartered aviation business based at Southend Airport that ferries around Premier League footballers and other corporate clients. He says it has been ‘hit badly’ by the pandemic, with its usual £20million revenue down 40 per cent due to quarantine travel bans. ‘Business is business,’ he shrugs. ‘You’ve just got to fight with what you’ve got.’
He decided to challenge the lockdown in April, after reading a newspaper article by barrister Francis Hoar who suggested there could be a judicial review similar to the legal claim against the parliamentary process for Brexit, which was brought by businesswoman Gina Miller.
Dolan contacted Hoar’s Field Court Chambers and they joined forces with Michael Gardner, a partner at law firm Wedlake Bell. ‘A week after speaking to him, we were all up and running and ready to take on the Government.’
His legal claim argues that the Government’s lockdown in response to the pandemic is ‘disproportionate’ to the threat and breaches fundamental freedoms protected by the European Convention on Human Rights.
Dolan has already spent around £130,000 on legal costs, with a further £280,000 from a crowdfunding campaign backed by 9,500 people. He initially started it as a personal crusade, but has now been joined by people ‘from all walks of life’, including pensioners ‘who think the whole thing’s bloody ludicrous’. He says: ‘They are quite happy to look after themselves, they don’t need looking after.
‘What right does the Government have to tell a 60 or 70-year-old to stay indoors and not visit his grandchildren because he might die? Surely that’s up to him?’
His opinion has been supported in recent weeks by Lord Sumption, a retired Supreme Court judge who called blanket lockdown restrictions ‘despotic and ineffective’ and argued that Britons should be allowed to manage the virus themselves because they can ‘fine-tune their precautions to their own situation’.
Lord Sumption has spoken to Dolan’s legal team to share views. ‘Having an ex-Supreme Court judge basically telling people to break the law, that’s a big thing,’ Dolan says. Other well-known figures are starting to speak out against the lockdown – although Dolan says many business owners remain silent, for fear of alienating a proportion of their customers.
Insulated by his self-made wealth, Dolan has no such qualms. He calls Matt Hancock ‘a tinpot dictator’ and refuses to wear a facemask. He says: ‘I have worn one once, to buy a baguette in Monaco. I was only in there for five minutes and I hated it, I find them awful.’
He adds that the Rule of Six is ‘utterly ludicrous’ and that it puts the police ‘in a dreadful position’. ‘I am fairly sure a policeman will turn up at someone’s door with eight people there and it will kick off horribly and someone is going to get killed or badly injured.’
In July, a High Court judge threw out Dolan’s claim but it will be heard in the Court of Appeal next month. The hearing will be live in an open court, rather than via Zoom, but Dolan mischievously says social distancing won’t be possible because the Government is bringing 11 lawyers. He hopes to attend in person – as long as quarantine rules allow him to fly from his main bases in Monaco or France.
If he loses, he could have to pay up to £900,000 for the Government’s costs but says his crusade will still have been worth it. ‘The costs are irritating but they don’t make any difference to my life. It will be worth it in a sad way – because if we lose the appeal, it will mean the Government can do what the hell they want, and that includes telling people they can’t bury their parents or see them in care homes.’
He adds that he ‘can’t bear politicians or anything they stand for’ – and that the only British politician he admired was Margaret Thatcher. ‘One of the things she said was, ‘We don’t do what’s popular, we do what’s right’. I don’t think that’s been applicable for 30 years now.’