How a reckoning for the “chumocracy” is playing out in a court battle over a six-figure deal for associates of the Prime Minister’s former aide.
The true test of whether the government is operating a “chumocracy” is currently before the courts.
Since Monday, the government has been defending a legal challenge from the Good Law Project, a group of lawyers objecting to a six-figure contract that was awarded to a consultancy firm called Public First. The company, which was contracted by the Cabinet Office last March to carry out government messaging and public opinion research during the first lockdown, is owned by Rachel Wolf and James Frayne – described as a “Westminster power couple” by Politico.
Wolf is a former adviser to Michael Gove – now the Cabinet Office minister – and co-wrote the Conservative Party’s 2019 general election manifesto. Frayne is a former director of communications at the Department for Education under Gove.
Dominic Cummings, who was the Prime Minister’s top aide at the time the contract was awarded, was a special adviser to Gove when he was Education Secretary and says he has worked alongside Frayne and Wolf “in government and outside”, describing them as “friends”. He and Frayne also worked on the 2001 campaign to stop the UK joining the euro.
Frayne says he has had “no contact of any description with Dominic Cummings for nearly five years” – something Cummings also writes in his witness statement.
Gabriel Milland, a Public First partner who had previously worked in senior government communications roles, was seconded to No 10 in March at the request of Cummings to work on Covid-19 communications. Cummings also describes him as a “friend”.
Because of these close links between Public First and the former top adviser and senior figures in the Conservative Party, the Good Law Project challenged the government’s award of the £840,000 deal which was given with “no formal contract, prior advertisement, or competitive tender process”. The direct award was only formalised retrospectively in June, after the work had already begun, and was publicised a week later.
The campaign group says: “We believe that money for your mates, on a handshake, formalised later, is unlawful.”
The High Court is this week hearing more details about how the contract was awarded. It has heard Cummings was “the driving decision-maker” behind hiring Public First. Although Cummings could not direct the civil service, he said that “as a result of my suggestion, I expected people to hire Public First”.
However, Cummings claimed the need for the firm’s specific expertise at speed – within the urgent context of the pandemic – was the motivation behind the recommendation of its services. “Obviously I did not request Public First be brought in because they were my friends,” he said. “I would never do such a thing.”
Embarrassing messages sent between No 10 officials have been revealed in court, including ones in which Number 10 and the Cabinet Office’s head of insight and evaluation Catherine Hunt referred to Public First as the agency “who are Dom Cummings / Lee Cain’s mates, and hence getting all our work with no contract BUT are also spending much …read more
Source:: New Statesman
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