Boris Johnson has been urged to commit to a full public inquiry, having been pressed over reports the UK Government used emergency Covid funding to conduct “constitutional campaigning on the union”.
At PMQs, the SNP’s Westminster leader Ian Blackford challenged the Prime Minister over the issue, after it was reported by the Herald newspaper that UK ministers used a pandemic research contract to test attitudes towards the union in Scotland.
It has raised concerns over a misuse of public funds, with the Herald indicating that it had seen court documents showing an urgent request made by Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove to carry out the work.
In the Commons, Blackford said: “This morning, the Herald newspaper revealed that in the middle of the pandemic, Tory ministers secretly directed funds from an emergency Covid contract to carry out polling on the union.
“This evidence was uncovered in official documents submitted to the High Court, so the Prime Minister would be well advised to be very careful in his answer to this question, and it’s a very simple question.
“Did the UK Government use a £560,000 emergency Covid contract to conduct constitutional campaigning on the union?”
Johnson responded: “I’m afraid I’m not aware of the contract to which (Blackford) refers, but what I can tell him is that I think that the union and the benefits of the union have been incalculable throughout the Covid pandemic.
“And that the vaccine rollout… is of course something… vaccines are being pioneered in Scotland, they’ve been brewed in Oxford, bottled in Wales, rolled out throughout the UK and I think it’s a tribute to the union that he seeks to undermine.”
“I can’t think of a better use of public funds than making sure that the whole of the UK fights the Covid pandemic together.”Prime Minister Boris Johnson
Blackford suggested that the contract effectively “sanctioned corrupt campaigning”.
He said: “The Prime Minister has just demonstrated, not for the first time, that he hasn’t got a clue. The answer to the question is yes.
“Whether it’s redecorating the Downing Street flat, or siphoning off Covid funds for political campaigning, the pattern is clear – the Tories simply can’t be trusted.
“Because let’s be very clear as to what happened here. These emergency Covid contracts were supposed to be used for things like PPE, for our brave doctors and for nurses fighting Covid.
“Instead, during the height of this deadly pandemic, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Gove) used these emergency contracts to commission political research, and I quote, ‘on attitudes to the UK union’.
“What’s worse, he handed these lucrative contracts to long-term friends and former employees. In essence, this was a UK Government contract that sanctioned corrupt campaigning, Prime Minister.
“If the Prime Minister has even a shred of credibility, will he now commit to a full public inquiry on this gross misuse of public funds?”
Johnson said that the last two years had shown the strength of the union.
He said: “I can’t think of a better use of public funds than making sure that the whole of the UK fights the Covid pandemic together, and that’s what we do.
“And thanks to the UK Treasury, we were able to spend £407bn supporting jobs and families in Scotland, we were able to use the British Army to send vaccines throughout the whole of the UK.
“I believe that the story of this last two years has shown the incalculable value of our union and the strength of our union and that we are better together.”