The Cabinet Office has awarded an £840,000 contract to research public opinion about government policies to a company owned by two long-term associates of Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings, without putting the work out for tender.
Public First, a small policy and research company in London, is run by James Frayne, whose work alongside Cummings – the prime minister’s senior adviser – dates back to a Eurosceptic campaign 20 years ago, and Rachel Wolf, a former adviser to Gove who co-wrote the Conservative party’s 2019 election manifesto.
The government justified the absence of a competitive tendering process, which would have enabled other companies to bid, under emergency regulations that allow services to be urgently commissioned in response to the Covid-19 crisis.
However, the Cabinet Office’s public record states that portions of the work, which involved focus group research, related to Brexit rather than Covid-19, a joint investigation by the Guardian and openDemocracy has established.
A Cabinet Office spokesman said this was because of bookkeeping methods, and insisted that, contrary to government records, all the focus group research done by Public First was related to the pandemic.
The Cabinet Office, where Gove is the minister responsible, initially commissioned Public First to carry out focus groups from 3 March, although no contract was put in place until 5 June.
Government work is legally required to be put out for competitive tender to ensure the best qualified company is appointed, unless there are exceptional circumstances, such as an unforeseen emergency.
When a contract was finally produced on 5 June, it was made retrospective to cover the work done since 3 March. The Cabinet Office paid Public First £253,000 for the two projects listed as being Brexit-related and two more pieces of work done before the contract was put in place.
Public First was required to conduct focus groups “covering the general public and key sub-groups”, according to a Cabinet Office letter.
The firm was required to provide the government with “topline reporting” of their findings on the same day, with fuller findings reported the following day. The deal also included “on-site resource to support No 10 communications” in the form of a Public First partner, Gabriel Milland, being seconded to Downing Street until 26 June.
Milland was the head of communications at the Department for Education when Gove was the minister and Cummings was his political adviser.
The Cabinet Office said in the letter that it had commissioned the work from Public First for a total of £840,000 without any tender “due to unforeseeable consequences of the current Covid-19 pandemic”.
According to further details published by the government under its transparency requirements, Public First was paid £58,000 on 18 March for its first focus group work, classed by the Cabinet Office as being for “Gov Comms EU Exit Prog”, then a further £75,000 on 20 March for work classed as “Insight and Evaluation”.
On 2 April, 10 days into lockdown and with increasing numbers of people dying from Covid-19, the Cabinet Office paid Public First £42,000 for work listed again as “EU Exit Comms”. The first payment for work listed as being coronavirus-related was on 27 May: £78,187.07. A total of £253,187.07 was paid to Public First before the contract was entered into on 5 June.
The Cabinet Office spokesman told the Guardian that all the focus group work was related to the government’s Covid-19 messaging, and that the references to Brexit in the government’s official disclosures were misleading.
He said the Cabinet Office accounts department did not immediately open a “cost code” classification for expenditure relating to the crisis, so the payments were initially allocated to an existing cost code, which included communications about Brexit.
The political partnerships of Frayne and Cummings date back to at least 2000, when they worked together on Business for Sterling, the campaign against Britain joining the euro. In 2003, they co-founded a rightwing thinktank, the New Frontiers Foundation, and the following year set up the campaign to fight the proposed formation of a regional assembly in north-east England.
Cummings has described that successful campaign, which was based on portraying politicians as a drain on ordinary people, as “a training exercise for an EU referendum”.
Gove became the education secretary after the 2010 election, with Cummings as his chief political adviser, and Frayne was appointed as the department’s director of communications the following year.
In 2010, Wolf, a former special adviser to Gove, was running the New Schools Network to promote free schools, which was awarded a £500,000 contract by the department that year without a tender. It was justified on the basis that it was the only organisation able to provide expert support quickly enough.
The Cabinet Office contract with Public First is being challenged by the Good Law Project, which wrote to Gove on Thursday arguing that the absence of a tendering process was unlawful and not justified by the Covid-19 emergency provisions.
In a letter telling Gove that they plan to seek a judicial review of the contract award, the project’s lawyers, Rook Irwin Sweeney, argue there is “apparent bias” in the contract going to Public First, due to their “close personal and professional connections” with Gove and Cummings.
Asked if Public First’s links to Gove and Cummings were a factor in the firm being awarded the contract, the Cabinet Office spokesman replied: “This is nonsense. Public First were contracted to undertake this work because of their wealth of experience in the area.
“Public First was awarded a contract to carry out daily focus groups across the country in response to the Covid-19 crisis,” the spokesman said. “They carried out this work to make sure the vitally important public health messages the government was issuing were the right ones. This work will continue to inform future Covid-19 campaign activity.”
Rachel Reeves, the shadow Cabinet Office minister, said: “It beggars belief that the government’s desperate defence of handing a contract for daily focus groups on Covid-19 to longstanding friends of ministers is coincidence, and to blame clerical incompetence for the reference to the work on Brexit. They should come clean about the purpose of this project, why this company was chosen without it going to tender and publish the research findings and recommendations for people to see for themselves.”
Public First declined to comment.