03:57 GMT03 March 2021
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    The former top aide to Prime Minister Boris Johnson is accused of helping a public relations firm secure a government contract because he is friends with officials who run the company.

    Former Number 10 advisor Dominic Cummings told a judge on Monday that he did give recommendations for a company to receive a government contract because he was "friends" with the firm's owners.

    In a written witness statement seen by the judge, Cummings, who stepped down as a senior aide to Boris Johnson in November last year, defended the decision to fast track an agreement with PR firm Public First for focus group and communications services to the government as based on meritocracy rather than any personal connections.

    Cummings claimed that due to the national emergency during the COVID-19 pandemic, an "award of the contract without delay" was "entirely justified".

    "Obviously I did not request Public First be brought in because they were my friends," said Mr Cummings. "I would never do such a thing".

    He continued, saying he was "the prime minister's main political adviser from July 2019 until November 2020.

    "Because of COVID in 2020, this role involved issues of management and procurement far more than it did political advice. "A big part of my job was solving Whitehall problems - in particular trying to eliminate obstacles and to get the right people into the right roles and the right meetings".

    Cummings said he is friends with organisation officials, including Public First director James Frayne, but said he had not met with Frayne since 2016.

    "James Frayne and I worked on the Euro campaign 20 years ago, other political issues, and set up the campaign to fight the proposed formation of a regional assembly in north-east England in 2004," he said.

    He said he spoke to them "extensively about focus groups and public opinion over many years" and knew from "experience that Public First were very good at running focus groups and that its key staff had thought extensively about how people who usually ignore most news and political communication think and might be influenced"

    "I knew that I could rely on them to make an extra effort, beyond what they were paid to do". "Very few companies in this field are competent, almost none are very competent, honest and reliable", he added.

    Cummings denied all involvement in contractual agreements Public First "or their remuneration" and claimed that their output was "worth more than every penny spent".

    "I was under the impression that, provided we were acting genuinely in light of an emergency, that the courts later on would understand that we could not spend weeks on procurement in the normal way when we had hours to act and save lives", he said.

    ​This comes as the Good Law Project initiated a High Court battle with the Cabinet Office, criticising the contract and claiming that Public first was offered the deal based on Cummings personal friendship.

    "Public First was awarded this contract because Dominic Cummings wanted Public First to have this contract", Jason Coppel QC, who represents the Good Law Project, told Mrs Justice O'Farrell during a High Court hearing.

    Coppel told the judge that £500,000 of public revenue was spent and it was "not strictly necessary" to provide the contract to Public First without considering other competitors. 

    ​This follows reports by the National Audit Office that companies had been given a fast-track channel to contracts worth around £18 billion in total to firms with personal connections to Conservative politicians.

    Nearly 500 suppliers linked to senior officials or lawmakers were offered contracts through a scheme designed to speed up the rate of essential equipment access amid the coronavirus pandemic.

    Tags:
    coronavirus, COVID-19, Dominic Cummings, cronyism
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