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Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Cronyism row rumbles on

Further developments today around allegations of cronyism in the awarding of government contracts during the pandemic with the Guardian reporting on court documents that suggest Dominic Cummings was instrumental in the process of awarding a government contract without tender to a company run by his “friends”:

The documents reveal the central role the prime minister’s former chief adviser played in the awarding of the contract to Public First, a research company owned and run by two of his longstanding associates.

Public First was paid £564,393 to research the public’s understanding of the coronavirus and the government’s messaging around the pandemic, and one of its partners was seconded to work in Downing Street.

The company is run by James Frayne and Rachel Wolf, who are both former colleagues of Cummings and the Cabinet Office minister, Michael Gove. In 2019 Wolf co-wrote the Conservative party’s general election manifesto.

When the Guardian and openDemocracy first revealed in July last year that Public First had been awarded a contract without tender, the Cabinet Office said in a statement it was “nonsense” to suggest the owners’ long associations with Cummings and Gove were a factor in the decision to award it a contract.

However, in a witness statement submitted to the high court on Monday as part of a judicial review of the award, Cummings described himself as the “driving decision-maker” behind the government’s decision to conduct more focus groups and hire Public First, and said his faith in the company was based on his extensive experience working with its staff.

Cummings described Frayne and Wolf as his “friends”, but added: “Obviously I did not request Public First be brought in because they were my friends. I would never do such a thing.” He said he “requested” civil servants hire the firm because, in his experience, it was the only company with the expertise to carry out the required focus groups urgently.

“The fact that I knew the key Public First people well was a bonus, not a problem,” he said, “as in such a high pressure environment trust is very important, as well as technical competence.”

Cummings said he knew the quality of the company’s work and “I knew they would give us honest information unlike many companies in this sector”.

“I am a special adviser and as such I am not allowed to direct civil servants,” he added. “However, as a result of my suggestion I expected people to hire Public First. The nature of my role is that sometimes people take what I say as an instruction and that is a reasonable inference as people assume I am often speaking for the prime minister.”

Cummings said he had not met Frayne since 2016 and had no involvement in the contractual arrangements with Public First or the company’s remuneration.

The court documents included an email exchange between civil servants in the Cabinet Office in March, questioning the impartiality of Public First’s work. One said: “I know they’re not going to go away, but I have genuine concerns about the way in which they MIGHT be spinning stuff coming out of focus groups – way, way too close to No10 to be objective.”

Her colleague agreed, saying she was thinking of limiting the company’s work to testing opinion on Johnson’s messages, and having another company, Jigsaw, do focus groups with older and vulnerable audiences.

The head of insight and evaluation at the Cabinet Office and the prime minister’s office described Public First in internal communications as “mates” of Cummings and of Boris Johnson’s then head of communications, Lee Cain, “hence getting all our work with no contract”.

In a witness statement, the official said the email to colleagues was meant as a joke in an effort to ensure overdue invoices were paid to the company, and it “was not true” that Public First was given the work without a contract because of relationships with Cain and Cummings.

The question of course is whether this is the way valuable government contracts should be awarded. I would say not, and I hope that there is a proper review of all these sorts of contracts to ascertain the circumstances in which they were awarded and to ensure that in future a proper tendering process is used.
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