The chronicle will be the main accusation against the government after the Supreme Court ruling that the Cabinet Office acted illegally, with “apparent partiality”, when it awarded a contract last March to a company run by long-term partners of Michael. Gove and Dominic Cummings. .
But the Good Law Project’s victory, and the Cabinet tumult during the pandemic it exposed, has raised another fundamental question about integrity: the government’s relationship to the truth.
The careful judgment of Mrs. Justice O’Farrell, rejecting a fierce defense by the government, was that it had been illegal to even consider for work (conducting focus groups on Covid-19 health messages) any company other than the one whose owners and work Cummings knew, rated and trusted.
But the government’s response to what could have been a humiliating defeat was to say, for the communication of the media to the public, that: “The ruling makes it clear that there was no indication of real bias in the decision to award the contract, it was not due to personal or professional connections. “
There are two parts along that line, the first of which is quicker to explain: the judge did say that there was no “suggestion of actual bias”, because the Good Law Project (GLP) did not make that claim. His challenge to judicial review was a claim of “apparent bias”, which has its own legal formulation.
The second part is more complicated. The government was telling the public that, according to the judge, its decision to award the contract to Public First “was not due to any personal or professional connection.”
Legal trials exist to be scrutinized, but even so, without contortions, it is difficult to see this government line, in its official response, as anything other than misleading to the public.
It resolves the original denial from the Cabinet Office when The Guardian and openDemocracy first reported on the contract last summer. They said it was “silly” to suggest, as it seemed, that long-standing ties between Cummings and Gove, and Public First owners James Frayne and Rachel Wolf, who had previously worked with them, were a factor in the award of this contract.
Cummings himself appeared to overturn that position with his own witness statement in February. He acknowledged that Wolf and Frayne are his friends, although he said he had not met Frayne since 2016. Cummings told the court that his knowledge of his approach and the work of his company was key to his opinion that the government needed to hire Public. First to perform the test. the effectiveness of his messages on Covid-19, and urged public officials to commission them.
“The fact that I knew the key people at Public First well was a benefit, not a problem,” Cummings said.
In its own detailed defense, the government presented these personal relationships as a virtue, stating: “The past professional connection simply allowed a better judgment to be reached as to whether Public First was really the best / only appropriate body to perform services as it was. necessary”.
O’Farrell really accepted it; people who have been around for a long time will get to know each other. Its defining point, however, is that the government, which spends public money, even in a pandemic, had to have some process and criteria, to at least consider other companies, to ensure that there was no “apparent bias” in the designation of the person with whom there were personal connections.
In the face of that defeat, the government could have apologized for that failure, and legal costs of around £ 600,000, plus probably having to pay LPG costs as well. Instead, they issued a public statement that the contract was not delivered to Public First “due to personal or professional connections,” apparently at odds with their own case and the facts set forth by GLP’s determination.