Famed optician-dodger Dominic Cummings looks set to make news again on Monday, as his relationship to a company awarded hundreds of thousands of pounds of government money during the coronavirus pandemic comes under a legal microscope.
A crowd-funded group of lawyers has succeeded in forcing a judicial review into a “handshake deal” between the Conservatives and a company run by a husband and wife with a long history of working either for the Conservatives, or closely with senior members of the party.
“It is incredibly important that we can trust that government is spending our money properly and responsibly,” says Gemma Abbott, one of the lawyers behind the case.
“And when it comes to procurement it’s not just awarding contracts on a handshake to their mates.”
So what’s it all about? Let’s begin with...
The company at the centre of the case is Public First, a polling company founded by husband and wife James Frayne and Rachel Wolf in 2016.
According to its website, it helps organisations “understand and influence public opinion through research and targeted communications campaigns”.
On March 3 last year, as the government was slowly gearing up to deal with the increasing threat of coronavirus, it struck a deal with Public First and paid £253,000 for services between March and May 2020.
The controversy (part 1)
What’s notable about the contract is... there was, initially, no contract. It was a handshake deal that was only formalised in a retrospective contract on June 5.
In addition, there was no callout by the government for the services Public First would provide under the deal, so the normal rules that ensure all companies that want to can apply for a contract were bypassed.
Legislation was passed when the pandemic hit to ensure crucial supplies and services such as PPE could be procured by the government quicker.
Known as Regulation 32 powers, the new laws meant government and other public authorities do not have to go out to competitive tender due to the need to appoint suppliers with “extreme urgency”.
A Cabinet Office spokesperson told HuffPost UK: “In response to an unprecedented global pandemic the government acted quickly to ensure we quickly understood public attitudes and behaviours.
“This valuable work helped to improve vitally important public health messages, better inform the public and reach audiences.”
The controversy (part 2)
Back to the husband and wife who founded Public First.
According to Public First’s website, Rachel Wolf “began her career as an education and political adviser to the Conservative Party”, “was a policy adviser to Boris Johnson on his first mayoral campaign” and “co-authored the Conservative Party’s Election Manifesto in 2019”.
James Frayne “spent his entire career working in communications and opinion research” and, according to a piece he wrote for the Daily Mail in September last year, he “worked at the Department of Education, alongside Dominic Cummings under Michael Gove”.
In 2004 he worked with Cummings to set up a campaign against the formation of a regional assembly in the north-east, which Cummings later described as as “a training exercise for an EU referendum”.
As you may have noticed, there is a bit of a theme here, though Frayne has distanced himself and Wolf from Cummings and another of Boris Johnson’s former advisors, Lee Cain.
In a statement, he told HuffPost UK: “I’ve had no contact of any description with Dominic Cummings for nearly five years and have met Lee Cain twice in my life, neither time to talk Covid.
“Rachel Wolf doesn’t do opinion research and therefore didn’t speak to anyone about Covid research.”
Monday’s judicial review is being brought by The Good Law Project (GLP), a not-for-profit, crowdfunded group that scrutinises and in some cases launches legal cases into the legality of government business and conduct.
Gemma Abbott, legal director at the Good Law Project, told HuffPost UK the contract is “really problematic”.
“The government had given a very lucrative public affairs contract without any competition or tendering process,” she added.
“They directly awarded this contract to a firm that is run people with very close links to the Conservative Party and, in particular, very close links to Dominic Cummings and Michael Gove.
“We think that this arrangement – money for their mates, on a handshake and formalised later – was unlawful.”
The previous investigation
The contract with Public First has already been the subject of an investigation by the National Audit Office last year.
It found the government “failed to document why it chose this particular supplier, why it used emergency procurement and failed to document any consideration of any potential conflicts of interest”.
In written evidence submitted to the investigation, Frayne said the hasty nature of the deal it secured with the government and the lack of usual oversight was down to how quickly the threat from the pandemic was growing.
He wrote: “It was extremely clear to us that the country faced a national emergency and it was also clear to us that the government was panicking about how to talk to the public about what was an unprecedented healthcare challenge.
“There is no doubt in our minds that, had the government not refined its communications through serious opinion research, the early death rates would have been higher.
“Again, it is for others to judge their procurement processes, but a national procurement exercise would likely have delayed their research by a month at least.”
The case of Public First is just one of a number that the Good Law Project is currently involved with.
“Immediately, huge alarm bells were ringing about the potential for bias in the decision,” says Abbott.
“And indeed, one of the grounds of our case is that there is an appearance of bias in the decision to award that contract.
“And even an appearance of bias is really problematic. It’s really important that people don’t think the government is giving contracts to people because they’re friends with them.”
The judicial review
On Monday a judge will hear evidence from both sides in the case and decide whether or not the Public First contract was awarded unlawfully.
What will be especially interesting is the evidence the government presents in its defence.
“They’re required to put their cards on the table and share with you all relevant information whether it’s helpful for their case or not,” says Abbott.
“We have witness statements from several senior civil servants also from Dominic Cummings.”
Yes that Dominic Cummings, famed for of not exactly being a fan of saying anything publicly.
The controversy (part 3)
There is a further twist to the case. This week the government revealed it planned to claim up to £600,000 in legal costs for the case.
“It’s an absolutely staggering amount of money,” says Abbott.
“It’s almost unheard of in the context of a one-day legal hearing of this nature. By contrast our costs will be around £44,000 if we lose and £127,000 if we win. We believe the government is trying to deter us and others from challenging them.
“At the moment they seem to be doing everything in their power to avoid scrutiny in that way.
“And that should worry everybody. Why are they proposing to spend almost as much or more than the cost of a contract itself in defending a legal action that’s challenging its lawfulness?”
Correction: A previous version of this article stated Public First had been paid £840,000 by the government. In written evidence to the NAO, Frayne said this was actually the upper cap of the deal and £550,000 was paid. It also stated Public First had been paid for work relating to Brexit. Conservative MP Julia Lopez has said this was related to Covid but had been invoiced under government codes related to Brexit.