Michael Gove is facing mounting pressure to fully explain his role in the government’s award of large PPE contracts to a company that was first recommended to him by the Tory peer Michelle Mone.
Asked in an interview on Thursday how he responded to Lady Mone’s approach in May 2020, Gove said he referred all offers of PPE to “the appropriate civil service channels”.
That explanation appears at odds with a chain of emails previously released under the Freedom of Information Act that shed light on how the company, PPE Medpro, was added to a “VIP” lane that prioritised politically connected firms. The emails suggest that after initially being contacted by Mone, Gove suggested she contact another then minister, the Tory peer Theodore Agnew.
She then did so, emailing both Gove and Lord Agnew using their private, non-governmental email addresses to tell them about PPE that could be procured from “my team in Hong Kong”. It was Agnew, who was then a minister in the Cabinet Office responsible for procurement, who referred PPE Medpro to the VIP lane.
Pressed repeatedly by the presenter Kay Burley on Sky News to recall how he responded to Mone’s offer, Gove, who was Cabinet Office minister at the time, said his job then was to make sure anyone who offered PPE was “referred to the right channel”.
He added: “I would have hoped that you or I, if someone said ‘I can provide PPE’, that we would have said: ‘Great. The thing to do is to go to this official government process, to go through this procurement gateway, to have the quality of the contract that you’re seeking to secure assessed.’”
However, the emails obtained by the Guardian appear to show Gove directing Mone not directly to civil servants, but to a fellow minister.
They reveal how Mone laid out a sales pitch to Agnew for the supply of PPE. The government had by then suspended normal competitive tendering processes and, it would later emerge, was fast-tracking to a “VIP” lane offers of PPE referred by politically connected people.
“I hope this email finds you well,” Mone wrote to Agnew, copying in Gove, using both of their private emails. “Michael Gove has asked to urgently contact you [sic]. We have managed to source PPE masks though [sic] my team in Hong Kong. They have managed to secure 100,000pcs per day of KN95 [face masks] which is equivalent to N95 or FFP2. In order to commit to this 100,000pcs per day could you please get back to me asap as freight will also need to be secured. Hope to see you in the House of Lords when we get out of lockdown. Kindest regards, Michelle.”
Agnew replied from his personal email address, copying in the government email address of his private secretary. “Michelle, thank you for your kind offer. I am forwarding this into the appropriate PPE workstream with Dept of Health. They will ask you some basic questions on the details of the offer and then hopefully progress it from there. Best wishes Theodore.”
One of his staff then emailed a Covid PPE “priority appraisals” mailbox, asking them to “pick up with Baroness Mone”. The staff member added the words “VIA LORD AGNEW” and “VIP” to the subject field.
At that stage, the company, PPE Medpro, had not even been incorporated. However within weeks it had been awarded two government contracts worth £203m to supply millions of face masks and sterile surgical gowns.
Mone’s lawyers have previously said she never had any role “in the process by which contracts were awarded to PPE Medpro”. PPE Medpro previously said the company “was not awarded the contract because of company or personal connections to the UK government or the Conservative party”.
The Guardian was only able to establish that private emails had been used because of an apparent administrative error by the Cabinet Office, which failed to properly redact documents released after a freedom of information request from the Guardian.
The Guardian contacted Gove to ask him how the account he gave of his response to Mone’s offer on Sky News, in which he said he referred all offers to “the appropriate civil service channels”, was consistent with the suggestion he in fact told Mone to contact Agnew. He did not respond.
The government has consistently defended the “VIP” process; spokespeople have maintained that contracts were awarded “in line with procurement regulations and transparency guidelines, and there are robust rules and processes in place to prevent conflicts of interest”. However, the use of the high-priority lane to award contacts has been ruled unlawful by the high court.
Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader and shadow chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster, said: “Michael Gove must urgently come clean with the public on his personal involvement in the award of contracts to PPE Medpro during his time as chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster.
“The government must commit to publishing all the documents and correspondence relating to the award of taxpayer contracts to PPE Medpro out in the open.”