‘Chumocracy’: how Covid revealed the new shape of the Tory establishment
Appointments made and contracts awarded during the pandemic have uncovered a web of connections
The anti-establishment claims of a government led by Johnson and Dominic Cummings were always audacious, and in the appointments and contracts awarded during the pandemic, the shape of a Tory establishment has come into focus. Critics are calling it a “chumocracy”.
Companies benefiting from government contracts awarded during the pandemic have links, among others, to the Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove and Cummings, the prime minister’s chief adviser. Cummings shock departure from Downing Street following the resignation of his close ally Lee Cain, who was head of communications, now signal a realignment of power in No 10, but the web of connections drawing complaints of “cronyism” extend beyond any single Tory faction.
Bingham’s appointment shares similarities with that of Dido Harding, to head the NHS test and trace operation in May. She was made chair of NHS Improvement in 2017 after an open recruitment process, her CV gleams with executive experience, and also opens a window to a small world of Conservative connectedness. Married to the Tory MP John Penrose, she was given a peerage in 2014 by David Cameron, a friend, and sits in the House of Lords as a Conservative.
Neither Bingham nor Harding are being paid for their roles, but critics complain that two central pillars of the pandemic response, vaccines and testing, are being led by two well-connected executives appointed without an evident formal process.
Labour’s Dawn Butler says pandemic being used as a “cover” to avoid accountability, comments come in wake of latest openDemocracy COVID contracting revelation.
The government has been accused of presiding over “a national scandal” by awarding multi-million COVID contracts to companies with minimal oversight and accountability.
Labour MP Dawn Butler told openDemocracy that many of the firms that had received lucrative government contracts had failed to deliver.
“There is public money being given to companies that are not delivering a good service. I think the pandemic is being used as a cover,” said the member of the House of Commons science and technology select committee.
Butler’s comments, made in a live webinar, came after openDemocracy revealed a PR firm close to Dominic Cummings and Michael Gove that has received more than £1million worth of government contracts without any competition had been hired to clean up the A-level exams result fiasco.
Government contracts are usually awarded after a tender process which allows multiple providers to compete to provide the best value.
But since the COVID-19 pandemic struck, the government has used an exemption in procurement legislation to avoid having to open up public contracts to tender.
Government departments have handed huge sums of money out to private firms under the emergency rules since the beginning of the pandemic.
The British government has been accused of “blatant cronyism” after an openDemocracy investigation found that former Tory chairman, Andrew Feldman, was quietly given a job advising a health minister despite potential conflicts of interest with clients of the lobbying firm that he runs.
Lord Feldman, who has been mooted as a contender for Boris Johnson’s next chief of staff, worked as an unpaid adviser to health minister Lord Bethell between March 24 and May 15 this year.
At the time the government was assembling an informal “task force” with private and public sector organisations to scale up coronavirus testing as a precursor to its test and trace programme.
The Tory peer is also managing director of PR consultancy Tulchan. Yet his advisory role, which was supported by a “small civil service private office”, according to officials, was never formally announced by the government.
The Department of Health and Social Care said that the Feldman’s appointment had been “fully documented” – but were unable to point to any examples of where his role had been made public before being contacted by openDemocracy.
As Serco’s share price soars, government accused of “shovelling huge sums of public money to a handful of outsourcing companies without competition, rigour or accountability”.
Outsourcing giant Serco was given a £57 million contract to run COVID testing centres across the UK without any competition, openDemocracy can reveal.
The Department of Health and Social Care handed Serco and other private firms previously secret multi-million pound contracts to provide “management services” at sites across the country.
The news comes as the FTSE-listed firm announced this morning that the government has renewed an earlier contact-tracing contract – worth a reported £410 million – despite a swelling chorus of criticism of the scheme’s failings.
Sage, the government’s scientific advisory team, has warned that “engagement” problems and “delays” means the track and trace system is only having a “marginal impact” on reducing the spread of the virus.
Serco’s unscheduled trading statement Friday sent its shares soaring. The company predicted that profits could hit £165m, thanks largely to a slew of lucrative government contracts.
Under the terms of the newly unearthed contract, the government paid both Serco and outsourcers G4S an initial fee of £57 million to run COVID testing sites at locations across the UK. Another outsourcing firm, Mitie, was given £32 million to provide similar services. All these contracts were awarded without a competitive tender process.
The contracts were only published last week – despite rules stipulating that contracts must be made public within thirty days.
A small, loss-making firm run by a Conservative councillor in Stroud was given a £156m contract to import PPE from China without any competition, openDemocracy has learned.
Steve Dechan’s company, P14 Medical, signed the huge contract to supply medical gowns in May, even though the firm suffered significant financial losses in 2019, and its previous track record in PPE procurement is unclear. Transparency campaigners say the deal “reeks of cronyism”.
Dechan, who stood down from Stroud town council in late August, had previously made headlines when it emerged that P14 Medical had landed a contract worth almost £120m to supply face shields to the Department of Health and Social Care.
The £156m gowns deal was signed in late May, but details were only published at the end of September. Government contracts are supposed to be made public within 30 days.
Questions have also been raised about large contracts awarded to other small firms with limited experience of supplying PPE, including many with links to the Conservative party.
Cabinet Office accused of breaching rules after handing £840,000 contract to PR firm run by co-author of the 2019 Tory manifesto for focus groups initially listed as ‘EU Exit Comms’.
The Cabinet Office has awarded an £840,000 contract for researching public opinion about government policies to a company owned by two long-term associates of Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings, without putting the work out for tender.
Public First, a small policy and research company in London’s Tufton Street, is run by James Frayne – whose work alongside Cummings dates back to a Eurosceptic campaign 20 years ago – and Rachel Wolf, a former advisor to Gove who co-wrote the Conservative Party’s 2019 election manifesto.
The government justified the absence of a competitive tendering process, which would have enabled other companies to bid, under emergency regulations that allow services to be urgently commissioned in response to the COVID-19 crisis.
However the Cabinet Office’s public record states that portions of the work, which involved conducting focus groups, related to Brexit rather than COVID-19, a joint investigation by openDemocracy and the Guardian has established.
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