BORIS Johnson has been pressed by Ian Blackford on his government's redirection of pandemic research contract funds to conduct secret polling on the Union.

The evidence emerged today in documents submitted to the High Court which show an urgent request to test attitudes to the Union was made by the office of Michael Gove - under the cover of the Covid-19 contract given to Public First, which was meant to inform "vital" advice to shape the UK government's pandemic response.

Blackford pressed Johnson on the situation at Prime Minister's Questions in the Commons today.

"In the middle of the pandemic Tory ministers secretly directed funds from an emergency Covid contract to carry out polling on the Union," he said.

"This evidence was uncovered in official documents submitted to the High Court so the Prime Minister would be well advised to be very careful in his answer to this question and it's a very simple question: did the UK Government use a £568,000 emergency Covid contract to conduct constitutional campaigning on the Union?"

Johnson said: "Mr Speaker I am afraid I am not aware of the conduct which [Ian Blackford] refers".

He then went on to say the Union and the "benefits" of the Union had been "incalcuable" during the pandemic.

Blackford hit back: "The Prime Minister has demonstrated and not for the first time that he hasn't a clue"..the answer to the question is "Yes".. Whether it's redecorating the Downing Street flat or Covid funds for political campaigning the pattern is clear the Tories simply can't be trusted. 

"Let's be very clear about what happened here. These emergency Covid contracts were supposed to be used for things like PPE for our brave doctors and nurses fighting Covid.

"Instead during the height of this deadly pandemic the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster used these emergency contracts to commission political research on the UK Union.

"What's worse he handed these lucrative contracts to long term friends and former employees...If the Prime Minister has even a shred of credibility why won't he commit to a full public inquiry into the gross misuse of public funds."

Court documents seen by The Herald show that services provided by Public First under a £560,000 Covid pandemic contract were extended to cover what was described as "qualitative research into EU exit topics and themes, re-building the economy following the Covid-19 crisis and attitudes to the UK Union".

The UK government said it maintains that it is allowed to undertake polling work on government policy issues.

Dominic Cummings last week defended the decision to appoint Public First he had links to insisting he was acting in the midst of a “once in a century” health crisis.

The Prime Minister’s former aide said the decision to appoint firms such as Public First during the pandemic without a proper procurement process was done to focus on the “imminent threat” of Covid rather than creating a “Potemkin paper trail”.

According to the judgement, the award of the contract was made by a letter from Gove dated June 5.

High Court judge Mrs Justice O’Farrell ruled that the June 5 decision to award the contract to Public First - run by close allies of Gove and Cummings - "gave rise to apparent bias and was unlawful".

The judge said a failure to consider other firms could be seen as suggesting a "real danger" of bias.

Public First is run by husband and wife policy specialists James Frayne and Rachel Wolf, both of whom previously worked with Cummings and Gove.

And the Good Law Project, which brought the legal challenge against Gove says the services commissioned in the contract "significantly exceeded" the scope of Covid-19 communications.

Papers reveal that the contract was extended to cover research into EU exit topics, re-building the economy following the Covid-19 crisis and attitudes to the UK Union.

One spend of £98,000 in August last year covering one of 11 sets of focus groups in July across the UK, covered Edinburgh, Glasgow, Inverness and the Highlands and related to the Government's post-Covid economic renewal work and matters relating to the UK union.

Catherine Hunt, head of insight and evaluation for the Prime Minister's Office and Cabinet Office communication team has detailed how Gove's office had requested Union-related research which they did contract for separately - and included it within the Covid-19 research.

She states in written evidence that testing the strength of the union initially came out of an urgent new government narrative research and testing brief which began in January 2020.

It came after a briefing with Alex Aiken, executive director for government communications who was responsible for strategy.

She said the narrative would be "very important in setting out its main polcies and over-arching vision" for the longer-term informing its overall communication strategy.

At the same time she had been conducting research for Lee Cain, the cabinet office's director of communications on the union and sharing details with Gove.

She says she told Gove's office on January 28, last year that they were working with Public First to do "narrative testing".

In one instant message exchange the same month she said to a colleague: "I'm in the middle of a separate email to Alex now about the Public First research.

"Tory Party research agency tests Tory Party narrative on public money. But actually, it will be very interesting and very good."

She has said in court papers that it was "meant to be frivolous and light-hearted."
In an email in March, she raise further concerns saying: "… this agency is the one who are Dom Cummings / Lee Cain's mates, and hence getting all our work with no contract BUT are also spending much money on doing all our ridiculous groups, so keen that they're paid and don't start whining about us when it's not our fault. I know it's not you!! …"

Campaigners took legal action against Gove over the Cabinet Office's decision to use the company following the start of the pandemic last year.

They also questioned the involvement of Cummings, who worked in Downing Street until he quit as the prime minister's chief adviser last autumn.

The Good Law Project is now seeking a shake up on how contracts are awarded "to help restore public confidence in how taxpayers' money is being spent and ensure the public purse is getting value for money".

They have told the government that in the light of the judgement they should commit to recovering public money from all the companies who failed to meet their contractual obligations - and agree an independent process to identify those failures.

"Now is the time for a real commitment to scrutiny, to accountability and to ensure the money spent can best meet the needs of our country at a time of crisis," said project director Jolyon Maugham QC.

The firms said the judge’s ruling over the award of the contract vindicated its characterisation of Government pandemic procurement as “institutionalised cronyism”.

The Cabinet Office has rejected calls for an investigation after the judgement arguing that Gove “was not involved in the decision to award this contract”.

A Public First spokesman said the company was "deeply proud of the work we did in the early stages of the pandemic, which helped save lives".

He added: "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."