A government contract given to a firm whose founders were friends of Dominic Cummings has been ruled lawful, overturning an earlier court judgement.
Last year, the High Court ruled that the £550,000 contract awarded to PR firm Public First was unlawful as it gave rise to “apparent bias”.
That ruling has now been reversed in a legal victory for the government.
Campaign group the Good Law Project, which challenged the legality of the contract, said it planned to appeal.
Public First was awarded the contract by the Cabinet Office to carry out focus groups, to test the effectiveness of slogans such as “Stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives”, in June 2020.
The firm is run by Rachel Wolf, a former adviser to then Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove, and James Frayne, a longstanding friend of Dominic Cummings, who was Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s top adviser at the time.
In the original ruling, Mrs Justice O’Farrell found that the “apparent bias” in awarding the contract was not due to the existing relationships between Mr Cummings and Public First, but because of a failure to consider any other research agency and record the objective criteria used in the selection.
But on Tuesday morning, the Court of Appeal overturned that decision.
Lord Chief Justice Lord Burnett said: “The fair-minded and reasonably informed observer would not have concluded that a failure to carry out a comparative exercise of the type identified by the judge created a real possibility that the decision-maker was biased.”
In a tweet, Dominic Cummings said the Court of Appeal ruling was “total vindication for my decisions on moving super speedy on procurement to save lives”.
He added: “Remember all the ignorant nonsense from pundits/minor social scientists/Remainiacs?”
In a disparaging reference to Good Law Project chief Jolyon Maugham, he said: “Lord Chief Justice crushes kimono-fox-killer.”
Mr Maugham said his group intended to take the case to the Supreme Court.
“This is the first substantive judgment against us since 2019. We think, with respect, it’s wrong and we are asking for permission to go to the Supreme Court,” the campaigning lawyer tweeted.
March 2020 Public First asked to carry out focus groups and other research on recommendation of Dominic Cummings
June 2020 Cabinet Office awards Public First contract retrospectively and without bids from other suppliers under emergency coronavirus provisions
June 2021 High Court rules the contract unlawful, after a challenge by campaign group the Good Law Project
January 2022 The Court of Appeal overturns the High Court verdict
The Cabinet Office said it welcomed the Court of Appeal’s ruling.
“Throughout the pandemic our priority has always been to save lives and the work by Public First helped to improve vitally important health messages,” a spokesperson said.
Public First founding partner James Frayne said: “Our team worked unbelievably hard for seven days a week – from early morning until late at night – during the height of the pandemic, helping to refine key messages that reduced the pressure on the NHS and prevented many casualties.
“Today’s judgment rightly pays tribute to the team’s efforts and reaffirms what we have always known: that they should be proud of their work.”