High Court judge ponders awarding of contract to friends of Dominic Cummings

Brian Farmer, PA
·4-min read

A High Court judge is considering whether a Government decision to award a market research contract to a company whose bosses were friends of Dominic Cummings was unlawful.

Campaigners took legal action against the Cabinet Office over the decision to pay more than £500,000 of taxpayers’ money to research firm Public First, following the start of the coronavirus crisis in March 2020, and questioned the involvement of Mr Cummings.

Lawyers representing the Good Law Project say Mr Cummings, then Boris Johnson’s chief adviser, wanted focus group and communications support services work to be given to a company whose bosses were his friends.

The Good Law Project told Mrs Justice O’Farrell that a “fair-minded” and “informed” observer would conclude there was a “real possibility of bias”, and argued the decision was unlawful.

Lawyers representing the Cabinet Office told the judge Mr Cummings made recommendation, not a decision, and the Good Law Project’s claim should be dismissed.

They said that during a national emergency Mr Cummings “recommended a firm he knew could get the job done”.

Mr Cummings said he “obviously” did not ask for Public First to be brought in because they were friends, adding he would “never do such a thing”.

Mrs Justice O’Farrell considered rival arguments at a virtual High Court hearing on Monday, and said she would deliver a ruling on a date to be fixed.

Barrister Jason Coppel QC, representing the Good Law Project, told the judge: “Public First was awarded this contract because Dominic Cummings wanted Public First to have this contract.

“No other provider was considered.”

Mr Coppel said more than £500,000 had been spent and told the judge it was “not strictly necessary” to award the contract to Public First without competition.

He said the current minister for the Cabinet Office was Michael Gove.

Michael Gove
Michael Gove (Kirsty O’Connor/PA)

Mr Coppel said Public First was a “small research agency” whose directors and owners were Rachel Wolf and her husband James Frayne.

He said the couple had “long-standing personal relationships” with Mr Cummings and Mr Gove.

Mr Coppel added: “The fair-minded and informed observer would conclude that there was a real possibility of bias: it was Mr Cummings who decided, without giving any consideration to alternative providers, that work valued at hundreds of thousands of pounds of public money should be given to his friends.”

Mr Cummings did not give evidence at the hearing but outlined his position in a written witness statement seen by the judge.

He said the country was facing an emergency because of the coronavirus crisis, and “the award of the contract without delay” was “entirely justified”.

Mr Cummings said he was Mr Johnson’s main political adviser from July 2019 until November 2020.

He said “because of Covid” his work involved issues of “management and procurement” far more than political advice.

Michael Bowsher QC, who was part of the Cabinet Office legal team, said Mr Frayne and Ms Wolf had “professional and personal connections” with Mr Gove and Mr Cummings, but it was “emphatically denied” that there was “any bias, or apparent bias” in the award of the work to Public First.

He added: “At a time of national emergency Dominic Cummings recommended a firm he knew could get the job done.”

He said Mr Gove did not have any involvement in the decision or influence it in any way.

The Good Law Project also complained about the amount the Government has spent fighting the case.

Mr Coppel told the judge that an “extraordinary” £500,000 had been run up in legal fees.

The judge was told how a civil servant had sent an email to a colleague in March 2020, saying “this agency” was “the one who are” Mr Cummings’ “mates” and “spending much money on doing all our ridiculous groups”.

The civil servant said, in a witness statement, that the email had been “in part a joke” for her colleague’s benefit.