The High Court decision that the Government acted unlawfully in awarding a major contract to market research company, Public First, without going out to tender, inevitably reflects badly on the reputations of those involved.
Dominic Cummings allegedly wanted focus group and communications support service contracts to be awarded to a business run by Rachel Wolf and James Frayne, who were former colleagues of himself and Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove. The finding also damages the reputation of the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, for not keeping a clear eye on who was benefiting massively from the billions of pounds of public funds being thrown at the national response to the pandemic.
Government can expect Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary, Jon Ashworth, to continue to bang on about this incident as Parliament turns its attention to detailed consideration of the imminent Bill to reform the NHS and social care, and other legislation to reform public procurement. The narrative will continue to be that cronyism lies at the heart of the Conservative government, that it’s one rule for them and another for the rest of us, and that the Conservatives’ real agenda remains the privatisation of large elements of the NHS.
Dominic Cummings, in his own submission to the High Court, perhaps didn’t help himself too much by his phraseology, referring to a contract worth over half a million pounds as “essentially irrelevant” given the scale of government spending, and the demonstrable need to hone public health messaging.
But the Court’s finding was clear:
“The Defendant’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.”
Arguably, Cummings is caught bang to rights, and brought upon himself, by his actions and words the opprobrium that will consistently be heaped upon him by the Labour front-bench over the coming months.
That said, the mud just won’t stick.
It won’t stick, because of the reality of the completely unprecedented situation with which ministers and their advisors had to deal at incredibly short notice, knowing that potentially hundreds of thousands of lives depended on them taking decisions as a matter of great urgency and without the luxury of having time to pause and reflect.
It won’t stick, because Cummings has already exited stage left, and the public’s memory of such backroom figures is very different to that of the sneering media elite who live inside the Westminster bubble.
It won’t stick, because nobody will be able to demonstrate that ministers were doing anything other than trying to save lives in a crisis and doing their best amid the chaos that Cummings and others have already described elsewhere on the public record.
It won’t stick, because other agencies, including my own Whitehouse Communications, that could have benefited had a more open tendering process been pursued, have better things to do than to fight last year’s battles over again. The health and social care communications sector has moved on.
And it won’t stick, to state the obvious, because for all the mistakes that may have been made, the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, and his team, in the public perception, got us through the crisis and delivered a world-beating vaccination programme.
Yes, government was in chaos, some poor decisions were made. The media should get over it, but the civil service must ensure it doesn’t happen again. It can do this by planning, now, for frameworks, to be regularly update and refreshed, so that in a crisis, ministers have a choice of providers already cleared and assessed for the skills and services they are offering. Pre-procurement has been around for decades in the health and social care sector and upon that experience government should draw in its preparation for future crises.
The real culprits in this case are not Cummings, Gove and Hancock, but their predecessors who clearly never took sufficiently seriously what a pandemic might look like and how a government should react to and prepare for the existential national threat that such plagues pose.
by Chris Whitehouse, Chairman and Director of Health and Social Care at Whitehouse Communications.