The Tory government acted unlawfully by handing a Covid contract to a firm run by Dominic Cummings ’ friends, the High Court has ruled.
Campaigners hailed today’s damning judgement, which came after a challenge to a contract handed to Public First in the first wave of the pandemic.
The communications firm – co-owned by Mr Cummings’ former associate James Frayne, and Rachel Wolf who co-wrote the 2019 Tory manifesto – was paid for “extremely urgent” research, development and consultancy on Covid-19 for six months from March 3.
The deal was originally worth up to £840,000 but the firm was paid £564,393.
The PM’s former top aide Dominic Cummings had already confirmed to the court: “I am friends with James Frayne, Rachel Wolfe and Gabriel Milland.” He added he had not seen Mr Frayne since 2016.
The High Court had earlier heard officials had “genuine concerns” over the choice of firm, and feared they might be “spinning” the findings.
Today the Good Law Project’s challenge failed on two grounds – that the government could have used existing suppliers, and that the six-month length of the contract was “disproportionate”.
But crucially it succeeded on the third and final ground, that the award “gave rise to apparent bias contrary to principles of public law”.
Mrs Justice O’Farrell said in her judgement: “[Dominic Cummings’’] professional and personal connections with Public First did not preclude him from making an impartial assessment…
“However, [the Cabinet Office’s] failure to consider any other research agency, by reference to experience, expertise, availability or capacity, would lead a fair minded and informed observer to conclude that there was a real possibility, or a real danger, that the decision maker was biased.”
The judge added: “The claimant is entitled to a declaration that decision of 5 June 2020 to award the contract to Public First gave rise to apparent bias and was unlawful.”