Cronyism will be the main accusation against the government afterwards the High Court ruling that the Cabinet Office acted illegally, with “apparent partiality”, when he awarded a contract last March to a company run by long-term partners of Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings.
But the victory of the Good Law Project and the turmoil of the Cabinet Office during the pandemic it exposed raised another fundamental question about integrity: the government’s relationship to truth.
The careful judgment of Mrs. Justice O’Farrell, dismissing a fierce defense of the government, was that it had been illegitimate not to even consider for the job – conducting focus groups on Covid-19 health messaging – any company other than the one whose owners and jobs Cummings knew, valued and trusted.
But the government’s response to what could have been a humiliating defeat was to say, for media communication to the public, that: “The ruling makes it clear that there was no suggestion of actual bias in the decision to award the contract, was not due to any personal or professional link “.
There are two parts in that line, the first of which is quicker to explain: the judge said there was no “suggestion of actual bias” – because the Good bill (GLP) did not make such a claim. Their challenge to judicial review was a claim of “apparent prejudice”, which has its own legal formulation.
The second part is more complicated. The government was telling the public that, according to the judge, its decision to award the contract to Public First “was not due to any personal or professional connection.”
Legal judgments exist to be scrutinized, but still, without contortions, it’s hard to see this government line, in its official response, as anything other than misleading to the public.
Block the Cabinet Office’s original rejection when the Guardian and openDemocracy were the first to report the contract last summer. They said it was “nonsense” to suggest, as it appeared, that the long-standing ties between Cummings and Gove and the owners of Public First James Frayne and Rachel Wolf who had previously worked with them were a factor in winning this contract.
Cummings himself later appeared to tear down that position with his own testimony in February. He acknowledged that Wolf and Frayne are friends of his, although he claimed he had not met Frayne since 2016. Cummings told the court that his knowledge of their approach and the work of their company was critical to his opinion that the government had need to hire Public First to test the effectiveness of its Covid-19 messages and urged government employees to commission them.
“The fact that I knew key Public First people well was an advantage, not a problem,” Cummings said.
In its detailed defense, the government presented these personal relationships as a virtue, stating: “The past professional relationship simply allowed for a better judgment on whether Public First was indeed the best / only body fit to perform the services in accordance with need”.
O’Farrell actually accepted this; people who have been around for a long time will know each other. Its key point, however, is that the government, spending public money – even in a pandemic – had to have a process and criteria, to at least consider other companies, to ensure that there was no “apparent bias” in naming the one with which there were personal connections.
In the face of that defeat, the government could have apologized for that failure, and for the nearly £ 600,000 in attorney fees, as well as probably having to pay GLP expenses as well. Instead, they released a public statement, that the contract was not given to Public First “due to personal or professional connections,” apparently contrary to their own case and the facts exposed by GLP’s determination.