Today
Thu 28 October 2021

Sam Bright reports how one of the attempts of the Prime Minister’s former chief aide to defend his role in COVID contracts doesn’t stand up to scrutiny

Dominic Cummings, the Prime Minister’s former chief aide, doesn’t seem to particularly like journalists. When Cummings wielded the keys to Downing Street, ministers were barred from appearing on TV and radio shows that were perceived to be excessively hostile towards the Government.

Good Morning Britain (GMB), hosted on ITV by Piers Morgan and Susanna Reid, suffered a 200-day Government boycott, after the pair relentless exposed the incompetence of ministers during the early stages of the pandemic.

The GMB stand-off ended on 16 November, just three days after it was announced that Cummings and his close ally Lee Cain would be departing Downing Street.

However, there is also a common belief in Westminster that Cummings equally enjoys toying with journalists. Throughout much of last year, lobby reporters relayed stinging quotes from an anonymous “senior Number 10 source,” thought to be Cummings or at least orchestrated by him.

This contradiction has collided in recent days, through a court case involving the former Vote Leave campaign chief.

The Government has been taken to court by the Good Law Project, a non-profit campaign group, that is challenging a contract awarded to Public First – a policy and research company – for communications work undertaken during the early stages of the pandemic.

Public First is run by James Frayne – a former advisor to senior Cabinet minister Michael Gove and an ex-colleague of Cummings – and his wife Rachel Wolf, who co-authored the 2019 Conservative Party manifesto. The Good Law Project claims there was “apparent bias” in the awarding of the contract.

Cummings, for his part, was asked to provide evidence to the case, and admits to recommending Public First. “I am a special advisor and as such I am not allowed to direct civil servants. However, as a result of my suggestion I expected people to hire Public First,” he wrote.

The Barnard Castle enthusiast used a number of arguments to defend himself: that he had no involvement in negotiating the terms of the contract, that it was money well spent, and that “obviously I did not request Public First be brought in because they were my friends. I would never do such a thing.”

However, one of the strangest arguments deployed by Cummings was that he had little involvement with Government communications, and so had little knowledge of previous public sector work conducted by Public First. The court heard that, in relation to a previous appointment, Public First was described by the head of insight and evaluation at the Cabinet Office as a “Tory party research agency [that] tests Tory party narrative on public money”.

“My involvement in normal political and communication issues was extremely limited after 13 December 2019 – contrary to practically all media commentary on my role – so it is not surprising that I can barely remember this work,” Cummings claimed, in response, while the official said her comment was “meant to be frivolous and lighthearted,” and she did not regard Public First as a “Tory party research agency”.

Cummings’ insistence that he was not involved in Government spin has “raised eyebrows,” according to Good Law Project director Jolyon Maugham – and for good reason.

Logs of Government meetings show that Cummings held a number of private meetings with high-profile journalists last year, to “discuss the Prime Minister’s priorities”.

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Indeed, in February and March the former Downing Street chief aide met with Head of BBC Westminster Katy Searle, Director of BBC News and Current Affairs Fran Unsworth, BBC Political Editor Laura Kuenssberg, Editor of the Sun Victoria Newton and one of the Sun’s political columnists, Trevor Kavanagh.

Strangely, there are no records of any officials meetings between journalists and Cummings or Cain between April and June – but the outreach picked up from July to September, when Cummings met with Political Editor of The Times Francis Elliott, Editor of the Telegraph Chris Evans (twice), BBC Director-General Tim Davie, Political Editor of the Telegraph Gordon Rayner, and ITV Political Editor Robert Peston.

This is in addition to any informal briefings that may have taken place between Cummings and various journalists. Perhaps Cummings did not consider these meetings to be important in the overall scheme of his work – but there’s no denying they took place, and it’s likely they were considered to be important by the journalists involved.

One of the failings of Westminster lobby journalism is that it covers and encourages personal psycho-dramas rather than engaging with the substance of issues. That’s why Boris Johnson – a man with little aptitude aside from his ability to prevaricate in Latin – is Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

Yet, Dominic Cummings was one of the most important people in the country – a lynchpin of the Johnson regime. His claims that he was an anonymous figure, largely uninvolved in Government politics or communications work, doesn’t seem to correspond with the experience of anyone else, certainly in the media, of the former Downing Street supremo.

“Everyone in Government knows which research agencies can deliver in a crisis, and it’s no surprise Public First was chosen given our record,” a company representative said, in response to the Good Law Project’s challenge.

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