Boris Johnson’s Government has been accused of “abusing” taxpayers’ cash after it emerged public funds were used to conduct polling on opposition politicians.
Documents released by the Good Law Project show there were “questions asked” about Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer and Labour London mayor Sadiq Khan.
The papers said the questions allowed the Government to assess the “credibility” of its own spokespeople against other political figures.
They add ministers would have considered using politicians from outside the Government if they “could credibly add to the public health argument”, although an option to deliver joint messaging in a “united front” of opposition politicians alongside the Government was rejected early on.
A March 2020 email from Johnson’s then senior adviser Dominic Cummings also urged immediate sign-off for a firm called Hanbury Strategy to start polling work, adding: “Anybody in CABOFF (Cabinet Office) whines tell them I ordered it from PM.”
In May 2020, an email from a civil servant said: “Hanbury measure attitude towards political figures, which they shouldn’t do using Government money, but they have been asked to and it’s a battle that I think is hard to fight.”
“Taxpayers’ money is not the personal cashpoint of Conservative ministers to dish out to their mates.”Angela Rayner, Labour party deputy leader
The Good Law Project is challenging a decision by the Cabinet Office to award a polling contract to Hanbury Strategy and Communications in June following the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.
Hanbury has connections to the Vote Leave campaign in the 2016 EU referendum, when Gove and Cummings were key figures.
Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner, responding to the publication of the documents, said: “This has the hallmarks of a racket, not a Government acting in the national interest during a pandemic.
“Taxpayers’ money that has been abused in this way should be paid back by the Conservative Party.
“Taxpayers’ money is not the personal cashpoint of Conservative ministers to dish out to their mates.
“We need a fully independent inquiry into the Government contracts that have been handed out over private email and WhatsApp so we can get to the bottom of this scandal.”
“This research shaped crucial public health messages, helping us to protect the NHS and save lives.”Cabinet Office spokesperson
A spokesman for the Prime Minister said: “It is an ongoing legal proceeding, so I can’t comment on specifically on any of it.
“But in general, in what was an unprecedented global pandemic, it was vital we undertook research into public attitudes and behaviours.”
A Cabinet Office spokesman added: “This research shaped crucial public health messages, helping us to protect the NHS and save lives.”
The department also said the contract was approved by civil servants and it does not carry out party political polling.
The Good Law Project said: “This money doesn’t belong to the Tories. They shouldn’t be spending it working out how to win elections. It’s public money – from taxes we all work hard to pay.”
“It’s clear the UK government was more occupied with dissecting their own political fortunes than tackling the Covid crisis.”Tommy Sheppard, SNP
In June, Commons Leader Jacob Rees-Mogg told MPs that using Covid cash to fund polling on attitudes to the union was “completely proper and justifiable”.
He said the polling helped inform a communications strategy linked to messages about staying at home and wearing facemasks during the pandemic.
The Herald Scotland newspaper also reported that a request to poll attitudes to the union was submitted as part of a Covid-19 contract given to Public First.
The SNP has called for a full public inquiry over the spending.
The party’s Cabinet Office spokesperson Tommy Sheppard said: “These revelations are utterly damning for the Tories – but show that they can’t dodge scrutiny on these matters any longer.
“It’s clear the UK government was more occupied with dissecting their own political fortunes than tackling the Covid crisis.
“Spending more than a hundred thousand pounds for their own benefit is scandalous – and the shroud of secrecy surrounding these contracts using public money is deeply alarming.
“While Dominic Cummings himself appears to have overridden the concerns of civil servants who were reportedly uncomfortable with these dodgy dealings, other key Vote Leave figures were being handed cushy contracts.
“Westminster is broken – and independence is the only way for Scotland to escape self-serving governments we don’t vote for.”