The British High Court ruled on Wednesday that the government acted unlawfully when it awarded a coronavirus contract to a company with links to a former senior government adviser.
The company, Public First, specialized in market research, and had links to Dominic Cummings, the former top adviser to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
The case was brought forward by the Good Law Project, a non-profit campaign organization, against the Cabinet Office, which is run by Michael Gove, government minister, who himself is a close friend and colleague of Cummings.
Public First is owned and run by Rachel Wolf and her husband, who has previously worked as an adviser to Johnson, Gove, and Cummings, and co-wrote the 2019 Conservative Party manifesto.
The Cabinet Office paid over £500,000 (then-nearly $650,000) to Public First at the start of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020.
The decision came amid increasing corruption allegations against Johnson, his government, and the ruling Conservative Party.
Justice Finola O’Farrell on Wednesday said in her ruling: “The claimant is entitled to a declaration that the decision of 5 June 2020 to award the contract to Public First gave rise to apparent bias and was unlawful.”
The High Court said that by not considering any other market research companies, this “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.”
Lawyer Jolyon Maugham, the director of the Good Law Project, said: “Government has claimed there was no favouritism in the awarding of contracts. But the High Court has held an informed observer would conclude otherwise.”
“This is not government for the public good – it is government for the good of friends of the Conservative Party,” he added.
“We just don’t understand how the prime minister can run a cabinet that acts without proper regard for the law or value for public money.”
A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: “We welcome the court’s ruling that we were entitled to award the contract on grounds of extreme urgency in response to an unprecedented global pandemic.
“The judge recognised the very complex circumstances at the height of the pandemic and that failure to provide effective communications would have put public health at risk.
“The judgment makes clear that there was no suggestion of actual bias and that the decision to award the contract was not due to any personal or professional connections.
“Procedural issues raised in this judgment have already been addressed through the implementation of the independent Boardman review of procurement processes.”
A Public First spokesperson said: “We’re deeply proud of the work we did in the early stages of the pandemic, which helped save lives.
“The judge rejected most of the Good Law Project’s claims, not finding actual bias in the awarding of this work, nor any problems with the pace or scale of the award.
“Rather, the judge found that weak internal processes gave rise to the appearance of bias. The judge made no criticism whatsoever of Public First anywhere in the judgment,” added the spokesperson for the company.