Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister, broke the law by acting with “apparent bias” in handing a lucrative public contract to long-time associates of his and Dominic Cummings, a judge has ruled.
The landmark ‘cronyism’ ruling counters ministers’ claims that there was no favouritism in the awarding of vast public contracts during the coronavirus pandemic. Public First, a polling agency owned by friends of Cummings, was handed a £560,000 contract last summer.
Mrs Justice O’Farrell, who gave the ruling, said: “The decision of 5 June 2020 to award the contract to Public First gave rise to apparent bias and was unlawful.”
The landmark judgement is the first in a series of judicial review brought by the Good Law Project against government Covid-19 contracts which were awarded without competitive tenders under emergency regulations.
The decision vindicates what @GoodLawProject has been saying now for a year: that the Government's pandemic procurement favoured friends of the Conservative Party. Full blog here: https://t.co/X5qowljZk9— Jo Maugham (@JolyonMaugham) June 9, 2021
Jo Maugham QC, Director of Good Law Project, said: “This is not Government for the public good – it is Government for the good of friends of the Conservative Party. We just don’t understand how the Prime Minister can run a Cabinet that acts without proper regard for the law or value for public money.
“Government has claimed there was no favouritism in the awarding of contracts. But the High Court has held an informed observer would conclude otherwise.”
Public First is run by husband and wife policy experts James Frayne and Rachel Wolf – both of whom previously worked with Cummings and Gove. Wolf played a large role in putting together the Conservative party manifesto for the 2019 election.
The firm was initially handed a Cabinet Office contract last January, having been recommended to civil servants personally by Cummings; it conducted focus group with new Tory voters in northern towns about what Boris Johnson’s “levelling up” pledge meant to them.
When the pandemic hit, Cummings urged civil servants to hire Public First to hold focus groups on the government’s coronavirus health messaging, netting them a £90,000 contract. A second contract – for which the firm was paid £564,393 – was awarded in June, including the secondment of a Public First partner, Gabriel Milland, to work in Downing Street’s pandemic communications operation.
Immoral. Unethical. Illegal.— Angela Rayner (@AngelaRayner) June 9, 2021
Ministers need to tell the public how they plan to recoup this taxpayers' money that they have given out illegally, as well as the billions of pounds dished out to Tory donors and for duff PPE that wasn’t safe.https://t.co/z6xRT6gAAR
The High Court found “the existence of personal connections between the Defendant (Michael Gove), Mr Cummings and the directors of Public First was a relevant circumstance that might be perceived to compromise their impartiality and independence in the context of a public procurement.”
Mrs Justice O’Farrell added that “failure to consider any other research agency…would lead a fair minded and informed observer to conclude that there was a real possibility, or a real danger, that the decision maker was biased”.
Gove had tried to argue that only Public First could carry out the contracted work and everyone was acting under pressure. However, the High Court found that version of events “does not stand up to scrutiny” and “the time constraints…did not exonerate the Defendant from conducting the procurement so as to demonstrate a fair and impartial process of selection”.
More to follow.