Rishi Sunak spends £500,000 of taxpayers’ cash on focus groups ‘to repair his image’

Two focus groups and one online poll each week until February 2023 will take the total outlay to above £1.35m, Labour protests

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Sunday 22 May 2022 08:20 BST
Rishi Sunak’s reputation has ‘crashed like crypto’, says Ed Miliband

Rishi Sunak is spending a further £500,000 of taxpayers’ cash on focus groups and polling, new Treasury contracts reveal, sparking a claim that he is trying to “repair his image”.

Researchers have been hired to carry out two focus groups and one national online poll each week until February 2023 – taking the total outlay over two years to more than £1.35m, Labour has said.

Angela Rayner, the party’s deputy leader, said the chancellor had shifted from testing public opinion about the Covid pandemic to making such spending “a permanent fixture”.

The new contracts were awarded after Mr Sunak “told the British people he has no money to ease the cost of living crisis and that cutting their energy bills would be ‘silly’,” she alleged.

“The government apparently has half a million to spend on spin doctors while Jacob Rees-Mogg is threatening to axe thousands of civil service jobs in the name of cost saving,” Ms Rayner said.

“At the start of the pandemic, the Treasury justified their spending on focus groups and polls as an emergency measure to test the impact of different policy options. But now this is little more than a taxpayer-funded vanity exercise for a chancellor desperate to repair his image.”

There was controversy when the first contract, worth £81,600, was handed to a Tory-run PR firm called Hanbury Strategy, founded by David Cameron’s former director of strategy.

The government said the purpose was “to inform immediate policy-making decisions and communications”, after Covid struck in 2020.

Two further contracts worth £205,680 and £552,862 were given to Hanbury in August and December 2020, again to test public opinion on the Treasury’s response to the continuing crisis.

But a new £500,000 contract with Deltapoll, described as being for the “provision of public opinion focus groups and online polling”, makes no mention of the pandemic, Labour pointed out.

The Treasury denied the spending is an attempt to improve the chancellor’s public image and suggested the cost might not reach the full £500,000.

A spokesperson said: “The Treasury conducts regular polling to help develop and measure the impact and understanding of its policies. All polling is subject to the usual tender process, ensuring the best value for taxpayers’ money.”

The row comes as Mr Sunak is locked in a battle with Boris Johnson over whether to impose a windfall tax on the excess profits of energy companies – a major U-turn the chancellor is said to favour.

He is also under pressure from Tory right-wingers to bring forward income tax cuts planned for 2024 – an idea that former chancellor Ken Clarke dismissed as badly misguided.

After a disastrous few months, marked by the failure of his spring statement to deal with the cost of living crisis as well as the revelation of his wife’s non-dom status, Mr Sunak’s fortunes have plummeted.

He has gone from being Mr Johnson’s heir apparent to languishing in the polls of Tory grassroots members – increasing the prime minister’s chances of surviving the Partygate scandal.

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