Four of Boris Johnson’s most senior staff members suggested that Cabinet Office officials should hire a company owned by allies of the Conservative party, one of whom co-wrote the 2019 Conservative election manifesto.
Within weeks of Johnson’s election victory in December 2019, public officials received recommendations to hire Public First to investigate voters’ views on the key manifest promise to “level up” the provincial cities.
The then Prime Minister’s Chief Political Advisor Dominic Cummings, Communications Director James Slack, then Downing Street Communications Chief Lee Cain, and Head of Policy Unit 10, Munira Mirza, suggested Public First for government work.
Mirza had just written the manifesto with Rachel Wolf, who own and run Public First with her husband, James Frayne.
Wolf has previously worked as an advisor to Johnson, Cummings and Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove, and since the election has urged the government focus on making small improvements in provincial cities. Frayne has also previously worked alongside Cummings and Gove and has performed extensive research on provincial city politics and how Conservatives could win working-class voters from Labor.
The Cabinet Office commissioned Public First in early February 2020 to conduct the investigation, asking working-class people in cities what they meant by “leveling up.”
Public First was paid £ 90,000, which was less than the threshold required for an open public tender for the job. The Cabinet Office did not enter a written contract with the company.
Disclosures that Cummings, Mirza, Slack and Cain recommended Public First to work are contained in documents released by the Cabinet Office in response to a legal challenge against the decision to award the company a second contract, for opinion research. of Covid-19.
They are likely to fuel accusations that the Johnson administration has operated a “chumocracy,” awarding contracts to favored and connected individuals and businesses. The revelations also raise questions about whether taxpayer money has been spent on a party political project.
The second contract, awarded on March 3 without a competitive tender when the Cabinet Office asked Public First to change focus and investigate public opinion on the Covid-19 pandemic, is being questioned by the Good Law Project.
When The Guardian and openDemocracy first reported on that second Covid-19 contract, the Cabinet Office said it was “foolish” to suggest that Frayne and Wolf’s partnerships with Cummings and Gove had been a factor leading them to be hired.
However, in his statement for legal action, Cummings confirmed that Frayne and Wolf were longtime friends and said he had recommended the company because he knew and rated their work.
Public First’s first recommendation was sent out by press office 10 on January 7, saying that “James and Dom,” whom the Cabinet Office official regarded as Slack and Cummings, wanted focus groups on how the country should “mark / celebrate Brexit on January 31, 2020.” They suggested you use Rachel Wolf, or whichever group is faster, “the email read.
The officials ignored that request because the Cabinet already had another company, Puzzle, hired for such work.
Mirza mentioned Alex Aiken, executive director of government communication, to Public First. In his legal challenge statement, Aiken said that he and Mirza had “an informal conversation in the corridor of number 10 about expanding the use of research companies.” He said it was “not unusual” for ministers or officials to want the list of companies updated.
Aiken said Cain told him at a Jan.22 meeting that they needed an urgent investigation to inform a speech on Johnson’s agenda setting on “leveling, global Britain, transportation and infrastructure, etc.” Cain had been “somewhat concerned” about the Cabinet Office’s regular research providers, Aiken said.
“Lee’s opinion was that it would be better to go with someone familiar with the government’s agenda, like Public First.” Aiken said that while trying to build trust with the Johnson administration, “I was prepared to work with the essence of what was being asked.”
After Aiken informed his staff that No. 10 had suggested Public First, one of the officials joked in an internal email: “Conservative party research firm tests Conservative party narrative on public money.”
Another said in her statement: “I had some concerns about the credibility of using Public First and the way the application got to us. I had not received an application to work with a particular company before this application was transmitted to us. “
However, they both added that Public First did have the necessary experience and did good quality work.
Frayne stated in his proposal for the “leveling” research that the focus was “all groups in the cities of the Midlands and North with the right to vote, less affluent.” Mansfield, Walsall, Bishop Auckland, Rotherham, Oldham and Bridgend suggested, with participants classified as lower middle class or working class, the overwhelming majority had just voted Conservative.
Special advisers told officials on January 28 that Gove had reviewed the plan and also asked for focus groups in Scotland, with “undecided / persuasive voters,” although he wanted different pollsters to do that.
When asked by the Guardian if this focus group work was a political project intended to inform the Conservative party’s strategy on strengthening its vote in the “red wall” target cities, a spokesperson said: “The Cabinet Office it cannot and does not conduct political party polls. “
Frayne also denied that the investigation was a political party. “The government’s job is to implement the manifesto, period. Our role was to recruit groups affected by compromised politics. Politics was irrelevant. What mattered was a sample that reflected the provincial England ”.
The government has denied any wrongdoing in the award of the first contract and defended itself in legal action against the Good Law Project’s claims of “apparent bias” in the award of the second.
Mirza and Slack, who are still working on issue 10, did not respond to questions. Cain declined to comment.
Frayne said his company has “working relationships” with people in the Labor Party and Liberal Democrats, as well as the Tories, and that Public First was an obvious candidate for the investigation. He said Wolf had worked for three months without pay as a volunteer on the election campaign and the Conservatives’ manifesto.
When asked if he had discussed with Gove, Mirza, Slack, Cummings or Cain the possibilities of Public First being commissioned to work after the election, Frayne said: “The senior team at Public First talks to people all the time about what they should do politically. “
He added: “These conversations happen regularly. We did not make any kind of formal presentation for the work, but it would be natural to think that we know what we are doing and that we could take up a job like this. “
Judge O’Farrell is due to issue her ruling on the judicial review of the second Covid-19 contract in the coming weeks.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism