Last week the High Court in London ruled that the British government acted unlawfully when, at the start of the pandemic, it awarded a contract to a public relations firm run by former colleagues of Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings. The judicial review was brought by the Good Law Project, a not-for-profit campaign group.
Public First, run by James Frayne and Rachel Wolf, was paid £560,000 to conduct focus groups and market research to gauge public opinion of government policies. Frayne is a long-time ally of Cummings who worked under Gove at the Department for Education during the coalition government. Wolf co-authored the 2019 Conservative Party manifesto. In a witness statement, Cummings said he was the ‘driving decision-maker’ behind the hiring of Public First early last year, when he was the prime minister’s chief adviser.
Civil servants appear to have been more squeamish. In internal Whitehall communications, a senior Cabinet Office official described Public First as ‘mates’ of Cummings and Lee Cain, then Johnson’s head of communications, ‘hence getting all our work with no contract’. Another mandarin speculated on email that the PR firm ‘MIGHT be spinning stuff coming out of focus groups – way, way too close to No10 to be objective.’
The Cabinet Office argued that Public First was the only firm that could do the job. The High Court disagreed. The department had not considered anybody else, even though Public First’s prior experience of working for government was distinctly modest. That, in the words of the judge, Finola O’Farrell, ‘would lead a fair-minded and informed observer to conclude that there was a real possibility, or a real danger, that the decision-maker was biased’. Gove, the minister responsible, had broken the law.
I took a particular interest in the Public First case. I broke the story of the Cabinet Office’s unusual award to the company last July, along with the Guardian’s David Conn, after I came across the payments buried in spreadsheets of government spending. The Cabinet Office dismissed as ‘nonsense’ our questions about whether Public First’s links to Gove and Cummings were a factor in the awarding of the contract. Public First did not comment at the time but later pushed back strongly against our reporting. The government responded to the judgment last week with a barrage of furious – and dissembling – spin.
At times it appears as if the courts are the only place an increasingly powerful executive can be held to account. In February, a judge ruled that the health secretary, Matt Hancock, had acted unlawfully by failing to publish details of government contracts signed during the pandemic. Again, the case was brought by the Good Law Project. As a leading Fleet Street reporter said to me shortly after the Public First ruling, ‘the opposition can’t lay a glove on the government. We struggle to, too. Only the courts seem able to stop Johnson.’
It was a bad week for Gove in the courts. The day before the Public First judgment, details of a tribunal hearing against the Cabinet Office were published. The Cabinet Office had appealed against a ruling that it should publish documents relating to a secretive unit accused of ‘blacklisting’ Freedom of Information requests from journalists and campaigners. The tribunal judge found there was ‘a profound lack of transparency about the operation’ and ordered that the documents be released. The case was brought by openDemocracy, where I work, and the public interest law firm Leigh Day. A parliamentary committee has now opened an inquiry into FOI in Whitehall.
But the various findings of wrongdoing have little discernible impact on the Conservatives’ grip on power. The notion that cabinet ministers resign when found guilty of serious offences has become an anachronism. Robert Jenrick remains housing secretary despite admitting that he showed ‘apparent bias’ in overruling planning inspectors and the local council to approve Richard Desmond’s Westferry Printworks development (the decision saved the Tory donor an estimated £45 million).
A Cabinet Office inquiry found evidence that Priti Patel bullied her staff – in breach of the ministerial code – but the home secretary remains in post as Boris Johnson, the sole arbiter of the rules, decided not to sanction an investigation. The prime minister’s independent adviser on ministerial standards, Alex Allan, resigned in protest. He was only replaced, more than six months later, after it emerged that a Conservative donor had paid for the lavish refurbishment of Johnson’s Downing Street flat.
As James Butler pointed out recently, Labour’s attempts to attack Johnson on cronyism and corruption have fallen flat: ‘The anti-political mood gripping much of England appears not to see them as disadvantages.’ Meanwhile, the Conservatives seem determined to tighten their grip on the institutions they can control and to undermine those they cannot.
The former Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre is widely expected to become the next chair of Ofcom even though his application was rejected by the broadcast regulator’s interview panel. The government has exempted a new £800 million high-tech research agency from Freedom of Information legislation. James Wharton, the chair of the recently created Office of Students, declared that academics should ‘leave their personal political views at home’ after Oxford lecturers protested against Oriel College’s decision to leave standing a statue of Cecil Rhodes. Wharton, a former Tory MP who ran Boris Johnson’s 2019 leadership campaign before being given a sinecured regulatory role for which he had no experience, knows his audience. No fewer than three broadsheet newspapers carried long features on Britain’s ‘culture wars’ last weekend.
Johnson sees votes in a ‘war on woke’ while his electorate remains unmoved by talk of ‘sleaze’ and ‘cash for access’. The prime minister took the unprecedented step of overruling the House of Lords appointment committee to ennoble the long-standing Conservative donor and former party treasurer Peter Cruddas, who gave £500,000 to the Tories three days after taking his seat. The Good Law Project has said it intends to challenge the appointment. How long these legal avenues stay open remains to be seen. The government has promised to clamp down on ‘activist lawyers’, citing a putative rise in judicial reviews. The Bar Council reports that applications for judicial review have fallen sharply since 2015.