Boris Johnson’s government gave taxpayers’ money to a private firm to conduct political polling on key opposition figures
The damning documents revealed by the Good Law Project (GLP), shows how under the instruction of the Cabinet Office, were given taxpayers’ money to conduct ‘political polling’ on key opposition figures, including Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer and Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan.
They were awarded lucrative public contracts to associates of Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings at Hanbury without competition.
The decision to spend public money polling on opposition politicians left civil servants deeply, and rightly, uncomfortable. One 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’.
Documents unearthed in the course of our hearing also include this March 2020 email from Dominic Cummings to civil servants demanding approval is given ‘immediately’ for Hanbury to commence polling work, adding: ‘Anybody in CABOFF whines tell them i ordered it from PM’.
News of Hanbury’s involvement was not well received. One civil servant 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.’
The evidence also shows Dominic Cumming’s close ally and former No.10 advisor Ben Warner (another Vote Leave veteran) was directing civil servants to his private WhatsApp rather than his official email address. In one email to civil servants, he claims: ‘often its easier to catch me over WhatsApp than email.’ Needless to say, Government hasn’t disclosed any of Mr Warner’s WhatsApp messages.
This money doesn’t belong to the Tories. They shouldn’t be spending it working out how to win elections. It’s public money – from taxes we all work hard to pay. And it’s a kind of theft for them to misuse it for the purposes of the Conservative Party.
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.”
The Cummings defence of I know best.
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.
When I saw shocking lack of data @ DHSC/CABOFF *I acted immediately* to get data for SAGE et al as covid x2 each 2-3 days. This improved policy + saved lives. A vaguely rational polity wd learn from this. Instead SW1 incentives = pay lawyers to confuse the media/MPs #InquiryNow pic.twitter.com/vHukS4051W— Dominic Cummings (@Dominic2306) July 29, 2021
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.