Tory-linked PR firm granted £3m Covid-19 contract without tender

David Conn, Peter Geoghegan, Rob Evans and Russell Scott
·4-min read
<span>Photograph: PA</span>
Photograph: PA

The political communications company behind the Conservative party’s controversial 2019 digital campaign strategy received a £3m government contract to work on Covid-19 messaging without a competitive tender and is negotiating with the Cabinet Office for more work, the Guardian and openDemocracy can reveal.

Topham Guerin, founded in 2016 by two young New Zealanders, Sean Topham and Ben Guerin, specialises in producing images and videos for social media and has worked for a number of rightwing political parties.

It was behind two Tory election campaign stunts that attracted widespread criticism: renaming the official Conservative party Twitter account “factcheckUK” during the leaders’ debate, and setting up a website presented as Labour’s manifesto.

An investigation by the Guardian and openDemocracy found that on 17 March, shortly before the UK went into lockdown, Topham Guerin was contracted by the Cabinet Office to work on the government’s public communications.

Jeremy Corbyn, left, and Boris Johnson went head to head in a party leaders&#x002019; debate on 6 December 2019.
Jeremy Corbyn (left) and Boris Johnson went head to head in a party leaders’ debate on 6 December 2019. Photograph: Jeff Overs/AP

Under emergency Covid-19 regulations that allow the government to ditch usual competitive tendering practices, no tender was conducted to allow other companies to bid for that work. A six-month contract was subsequently formalised on 7 May, with a retrospective 17 March start date, for a total of £3m. The details were not made public until mid-July.

Topham Guerin is the latest Conservative party-linked company known to have received contracts from the government under the emergency procurement rules.

Others include Faculty – an AI company that worked for the prime minister’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, on the Vote Leave campaign in 2016 – and Public First, a policy and research firm owned by two long-term associates of both Cummings and the Cabinet Office minister, Michael Gove.

The Topham Guerin contract sets out the high-level responsibilities of the firm, including that its staff will attend daily meetings at Downing Street or the Cabinet Office, lead the branding strategy and produce social media content.

The contract also said the role would include weekly meetings with the British army’s information unit, the 77th Brigade, “to review fake news mitigation efforts and provide recommendations on further actions to take”.

A Cabinet Office spokesman told the Guardian that Topham Guerin had principally been producing social media messages, and that the meetings with the 77th Brigade never took place.

The Guardian has previously reported that Topham and Guerin, who are in their 20s, worked on huge propaganda campaigns for CTF Partners, run by the Tories’ long-term strategist Sir Lynton Crosby, on behalf of clients including major polluters, the Saudi Arabian government and anti-cycling groups.

Lynton Crosby, left, and Boris Johnson pictured together in 2011.
Lynton Crosby (left) and Boris Johnson pictured together in 2011. Photograph: Alan Davidson/Rex/Shutterstock

After its work on the Tory election campaign last year, Topham Guerin took on more staff at its Mayfair office in January and February. Among these appointments was Deborah Feldman, a former Conservative staffer who previously worked for CTF as managing director.

While the £3m contract with Topham Guerin runs until 16 September, the Guardian has learned that the Cabinet Office is negotiating a new contract with the firm. It is not clear what the proposed contract is for, or if it will be tendered competitively. The company did not respond to a question about the new contract, and a Cabinet Office spokesman said it did not comment on ongoing negotiations.

The spokesman said the firm, which started in New Zealand politics and worked on Scott Morrison’s Liberal party election victory in Australia last year, was selected for the Covid-19 contract due to its “wealth of experience in communications”.

“Topham Guerin were awarded a contract to help advise and generate social media content to support coronavirus communications,” the spokesman added. “This has been published on in the normal way, in line with transparency rules. This work has helped to ensure that vitally important public health messages are effectively communicated to the public.”

A spokesman for Topham Guerin said the company had provided direction for the Enjoy Summer Safely campaign by the advertising agency Mullenlowe.

“Topham Guerin are proud to have worked with both the New Zealand and UK governments to provide creative and digital support for their all-of-government responses to the Covid-19 crisis,” he said.

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The shadow Cabinet Office minister, Rachel Reeves, criticised the awarding of the contract without a tender to the former campaigners on behalf of the Tories.

“Given the huge importance of communications during a deadly pandemic, work of this magnitude must surely be undertaken by longstanding, proven expertise in public health communications,” Reeves said.