Angela Rayner has declared that taxpayers’ money is not a “personal cashpoint” for ministers after emails revealed that the government used public funds to pay for opinion polling on Labour Party politicians.
Reacting documents revealed by the Good Law Project (GLP), which show that Hanbury was engaged to conduct polling on figures including Keir Starmer and Sadiq Khan, Rayner reiterated the party’s call for an independent inquiry.
“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,” Labour’s deputy leader said.
“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.”
Johnson announced that a public inquiry into the government’s handling of Covid will begin in 2022. Rayner recently called for it to start “immediately” after Dominic Cummings shared compromising messages from Johnson.
GLP released the documents following a court hearing last week in connection with its legal challenge to the awarding of lucrative public contracts to associates of Michael Gove and Cummings at Hanbury without competition.
Emails uncovered by the organisation showed civil servants objecting to the use of the money for political polling, with one writing: “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.”
Another civil servant wrote: “This all makes me really uncomfortable. Ben Warner wants us to spend £110k of public money per month with the agency who were behind Vote Leave who have no mainstream polling experience.”
During his witness statement, Cummings told the hearing that he thought the company would provide world-class polling and was the only firm that could do what the government needed, adding: “We can trust to give their all and be honest.”
Cummings explained how he personally called Paul Stephenson, a former colleague on the Vote Leave campaign, to ask if Hanbury would do the work, after which the £580,000 contract was awarded to the company without a competitive process.
An email in March last year showed Boris Johnson’s then political adviser demanding approval from civil servants for the contract budget “immediately”, adding: “Anybody in [the Cabinet Office] whines tell them I ordered it from PM.”
Hanbury was founded by Stephenson shortly after the Brexit referendum, during which he worked alongside Cummings as the Vote Leave director of communications. Hanbury also worked for the Tories during the 2019 election.
Normal legal requirements for public procurement of government contracts, to be opened out to a full and competitive tender, were suspended due to the emergency circumstances of the pandemic last year.
Warner is a data specialist who worked for Vote Leave before becoming a Downing Street adviser. GDL has challenged the awarding of the contract, which it argues shows “apparent bias”, given the company’s close connection to the party.