Dominic Cummings, former senior No 10 adviser, asked Hanbury Strategy to do polling on the government’s response to the Covid pandemic before the company was handed a £580,000 contract.
Emails released by the Good Law Project show that concerns were raised by senior civil servants that polling done by Hanbury on Sir Keir, London’s Labour mayor Sadiq Khan and others would show political bias.
One civil servant said on email: “Hanbury measure attitude towards political figures, which they shouldn’t do using government money, but they have been asked to and it’s a battle that I think is hard to fight’.”
But Mr Cummings told the most senior civil servant responsible for Covid contracts to sign off on it, and said that if “anybody in CABOFF [the Cabinet Office] whines tell them I ordered it from PM”.
Labour said the newly released emails showed “all the hallmarks of a racket” and claimed taxpayers’ money had been “abused”.
The party suggested that the public money given to the polling firm “should be paid back by the Conservative Party”.
The Good Law Project has shared emails revealed during its legal challenge over the awarding of a Covid contract to Hanbury to do opinion polls on the government’s handling of the crisis.
It has emerged that Mr Cummings personally called Hanbury founder Paul Stephenson – a former colleague on the Vote Leave campaign – to asked him if his company would assess public views.
At the most recent court hearing in Good Law Project’s judicial review, Mr Cummings said it was “my expert opinion” that Hanbury was the only firm who could do what was needed.
But civil servants were alarmed at Hanbury’s involvement, the emails showed. One wrote: “This all makes me really uncomfortable. Ben Warner wants us to spend £110k of public money per month with the agency who were behind vote leave who have no mainstream polling experience.”
A senior government communications official said he would have “preferred” that questions about Sir Keir and Mr Khan’s handling of the Covid crisis had not been asked by the polling company.
But he said the polling questions provided a “benchmark” against which the credibility of government spokespeople on the pandemic could be assessed.
Evidence unearthed during the latest court hearing also showed that former No 10 adviser Ben Warner – another Vote Leave veteran – had directed civil servants to his private WhatsApp, rather than his official email address.
Angela Rayner MP, Labour’s deputy leader, said: “This has the hallmarks of a racket – not a government acting in the national interest during a pandemic.
“Taxpayers’ money that has been abused in this way should be paid back by the Conservative Party. Taxpayers’ money is not the personal cashpoint of Conservative ministers to dish out to their mates.”
Ms Rayner added: “We need a fully independent inquiry into the government contracts that have been handed out over private email and WhatsApp so we can get to the bottom of this scandal.”
Mr Cummings later responded on Twitter to the release of documents, claiming that he knew Hanbury pollsters could “connect instantly” with the No 10 data science team. He also argued that taxpayers “gained” from his swift efforts to commission research.
The former No 10 strategist then got into an argument with Labour MP Jonathan Ashworth, the shadow health secretary, over the issue on Twitter.
“Why poll opposition figures?,” Mr Ashworth asked, before suggesting that Mr Cummings would have been “outraged” if a Labour government had done the same thing.
Mr Cummings responded: “The idea was to figure out which NON-government people most trusted for *public health comms*. This was SENSIBLE! It had nothing to do with politics and I said explicitly ‘keep separate covid/political research’.”
Asked whether Mr Johnson believed political polling on public opinions regarding his opponents was a fit use for taxpayers’ money, a Downing Street spokesman said: “This is an ongoing legal proceeding so I can’t comment specifically on any of it.
“But in general, in response to what was an unprecedented global pandemic it was vital that we undertook research into public attitudes and behaviours.”
The Good Law Project launched a judicial review against the government last October over its decision to award Hanbury a Covid contract without a competitive tender, accusing the government of apparent bias and favouritism.
Last month the High Court ruled that the government’s award of £560,000 Covid contract to the Public First market research company – whose bosses also had ties with Mr Cummings – was unlawful.
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