Sheer coincidence or simply cronyism?

Robert Wilcox

There is nothing new about political favours. Party leaders will often nominate loyal supporters for peerages, and key allies tend to find their way onto government or opposition front benches whether they are qualified for their office or not. Such appointments seem to have attained the status of political convention and are borne with a certain acceptance. That acceptance, however, has it limits. And in the last couple of months alone, we have seen two particularly notable examples of cronyism which bring the integrity of the government into serious question.

It was recently reported that the Cabinet Office, which is run by Michael Gove, awarded an £840,000 contract to a company by the name of Public First. This contract is for research into the public’s attitude towards government policies, including the effectiveness of the government’s COVID-19 messaging. Pretty innocuous one might think, even sensible given the importance of effective communication at this time. But there is more. The owners of Public First, James Frayne and Rachel Wolf, are long-time collaborators of Gove and the Prime Minister’s chief political adviser, Dominic Cummings. Frayne served as Gove’s director of communications at the same time Cummings was working as Gove’s chief political adviser. His collaboration with Cummings on political campaigns dates back two decades. As for Wolf, she co-authored the Tory Party’s 2019 election manifesto.

It could merely be a coincidence. Perhaps Public First is the best qualified company to carry out the work, at the lowest cost to the taxpayer. But there was no opportunity to test that hypothesis, as the government chose not to subject the contract to a competitive tendering process. This would have allowed other companies to bid for the contract. Why did the government not do so? According to the Cabinet Office, the COVID-19 emergency meant that the work needed to be carried out urgently. This seems plausible. As always, however, the devil is in the detail. On 18 March, Public First was paid £58,000 in relation to “Gov Comms EU Exit Prog” work. A further payment of £75,000 for “Insight and Evaluation” work was made on 20 March. On 2 April, £42,000 was paid for work relating to “EU Exit Comms”. It was not until 27 May, over two months into lockdown, that Public First was paid for work relating to COVID-19, in the sum of £78,187.07. This does not convey a sense of urgency. The Cabinet Office has since claimed that the references to Brexit communications were actually references to COVID-19, and were the result of administrative errors. There is such a thing as too many coincidences.

The second example, which came to light last month, was the approval given by the Housing Secretary, Robert Jenrick, to a £1bn housing development plan by former press tycoon, Richard Desmond. Jenrick overruled the decision taken by the government’s planning inspectorate, which felt that the development did not deliver enough affordable housing for London’s poorest borough. Jenrick’s timely intervention not only ensured that Desmond got the planning permission but helped Desmond to avoid a £45m charge. That money would have been used by the local council to fund educational and health projects in the community.

Apparently, the familiar spectre of coincidence made an appearance here also. Two months prior to Jenrick’s intervention, he attended a fundraising dinner at which he was sat with Desmond and other property developers. Desmond showed Jenrick a promotional video of the development and, following that event, sent a number of text messages to Jenrick, emphasising the need for a speedy decision to be taken. A mere two weeks following Jenrick’s grant of planning permission, Desmond donated £12,000 to the Tory Party. If it is indeed a coincidence, it is a remarkable one – not because of how completely causally unrelated these events seem to be but because, to the impartial observer, they would seem so completely causally related. It was not until the details of this coincidence were made public, however, that Jenrick admitted that his decision would be viewed as bias by someone acquainted with the facts and that it should, therefore, be quashed. Another coincidence perhaps?

When government ministers use their positions to line the pockets of their friends and allies, it undermines our democracy. That is why it is imperative that they not only do the right thing but are seen to be doing the right thing. The time is long overdue for this government to realise that with power comes responsibility. Their failure to be open and frank about these arrangements speaks volumes. There is nothing new about cronyism. But normally, if a politician hasn’t been forthcoming about such arrangements and there is a hint of suspicion, they at least acknowledge their position is no longer tenable and promptly resign when the facts do come to light. The times that we live in are far from normal.

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