Boris Johnson’s ministers are facing legal action over claims his government misused public funds to pay for Tory party “political messaging” ahead of local elections.
The Good Law Project has triggered proceedings in a letter to Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove and has told HuffPost UK the “Trumpian” government is using public money to “feather the Tory party nest”.
Ministers are trying to boost the Tories’ chances in town hall elections next month by blurring the divide between the “dissemination of government information and party political campaigning”, the campaign group says.
It says government-funded videos, which often feature the Conservatives’ “Build Back Better” slogan and the No 10 crest, are “virtually impossible to distinguish” from political campaign videos on the ruling party’s website.
It comes as Johnson faces a slew of allegations of “Tory sleaze”, with the prime minister himself texting billionaire James Dyson pledging to “fix” tax problems for the manufacturer if they would make ventilators.
Gemma Abbott, legal director of the Good Law Project, told HuffPost UK: “Make no mistake, this is Trumpian stuff. And is all the more egregious given that we are just weeks away from the biggest set of local elections this side of a general election.
“This issue goes to the very heart of our democracy. The British public should not be paying to further the electoral ambitions of the Conservative Party. We will not allow this misuse of state resources to go unchallenged.”
Lawyers pick out the “Build Back Better” slogan, used both on the masthead of the Conservative Party website and in government communications, and replicated as “Bus Back Better” and “Build Back Greener” in separate publicly-funded campaigns to underline investment in buses and energy projects.
Lawyers highlight several recent government videos which it says “carry the distinct look and feel of a party political broadcast”.
Sleek ads promoting Union connectivity projects in Scotland and Wales, where devolved administrations are electing new governments
An ad for two new offshore wind ports in the Humber and on Teesside, where key mayoral elections are taking place
A video marking a long-planned and previously-promoted boost to the minimum wage on April 1
Governments are legally required to have a policy for how they maintain a clear dividing line between informative communications, and electoral materials, so that they cannot use state resources to maintain their grip on power.
The Good Law Project is calling on the government to outline its policy and how it has been adhered to.
The letter from the campaign group to Gove says: “The government has disseminated publicly funded videos and other media purporting to provide information to the public concerning government initiatives and policies, but where it is very difficult to see the public benefit of the information.
“Instead the material would appear (in effect if not in purpose) to be
primarily material that promotes a political party, reflecting and
supporting the party’s political messaging.”
The Cabinet Office has said the slogan “articulates the government’s priority to support economic recovery”.
It also says the government issues guidance to communications officers on material that may be political and says that videos outlined to the government predate the election campaign period.
The House of Commons Library says that the convention for civil servants to avoid any communications that could influence voters is three weeks ahead of an election. Voters go to the polls across the UK on May 6, but due to the pandemic many will be casting a postal ballot earlier.
The civil service code also says civil servants must remain politically impartial and cannot “act in a way that is determined by party political considerations, or use official resources for party political purposes”.
The legal challenge follows strong criticism of Johnson hijacking a press conference on Covid to launch a political attack on London mayor Sadiq Khan, who is running for a second term against Tory candidate Shaun Bailey.
A Cabinet Office spokesman said: “‘Build Back Better’ articulates the government’s priority to support economic recovery, increase job opportunities and level up across all four corners of the UK.
“The government issues guidance to ensure that civil servants act with political impartiality, in line with legislation and the civil service code.”