A contract worth £840,000 that was awarded to a research company with links to Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings has raised questions after it was signed off without an open tender for the work.
Public First, a small research firm in London, is run by James Frayne – a longtime associate of Cummings who worked with him on Eurosceptic campaigns in the early 2000s – and Rachel Wolf, a former Gove advisor who co-wrote the 2019 Tory election manifesto.
The firm was rewarded a three-quarters of a million pound contract to carry out public opinion surveys about government policies without competing against other businesses.
Downing Street defended the absence of a competitive tendering process saying it used legally-sound emergency regulations that permit urgent Covid-related services to be quickly commissioned.
But, an investigation by the Guardian and openDemocracy of Cabinet Office records found that a portion of the work was actually related to Brexit and not the virus.
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.
Gove – who runs the department – commissioned Public First on March 3, but did not serve them with a contract until June 5.
Records found the company earned £253,000 for four projects before June – two of which were listed as being ‘Brexit-related’.
According to a Cabinet Office letter, the firm carried out focus groups ‘covering the general public and key sub-groups’ while providing ‘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.
He was previously the head of communications at the Department for Education when Gove was the minister and Cummings was his political advisor.
Records also showed that Public First had been paid £42,000 for work listed as ‘EU Exit Comms’ on April 2 – 10 days into the lockdown and at a time when coronavirus death were increasing massively.
Their first payment for Covid-related work was not until May 27.
Under current guidelines, companies bidding for government contracts must be subject to an open and competitive tendering process.
Rachel Reeves, the shadow Cabinet Office minister, told the Guardian: ‘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.’
The Cabinet Office denied allegations that Gove and Cummings’ connections influenced the decision.
The spokesperson said: ‘Public First was awarded a contract to carry out daily focus groups across the country in response to the Covid-19 crisis. 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.’