Pressure on Michael Gove over Covid money spent on Union poll ahead of Scotland visit

Michael Gove is under increasing pressure to answer why a £560,000 government marketing contract, which asked the public about Covid restrictions, was also used to poll attitudes towards the Union.

The Cabinet Office minister is due to visit Aberdeen and Lewis today, but is being dogged by questions over his decision to “spend pandemic money on political campaigning”.

It is alleged he commissioned constitutional research under the cover of an emergency contract given to the marketing firm Public First, extending its remit on pandemic questions to cover "qualitative research into EU exit topics and themes, re-building the economy following the Covid-19 crisis and attitudes to the UK union".

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The decision to award the contract to the firm, whose bosses were friends of ex-No 10 adviser Dominic Cummings as well as Mr Gove, has previously been ruled unlawful by the High Court.

The SNP wants Michael Gove to answer ten questions on government money spent on constitutional polling.

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SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford asked Boris Johnson to commit to a “full public inquiry” at Wednesday’s Prime Minister’s Questions and his party has now published “ten key questions” it believes Mr Gove should answer about the terms of the £560,000 contract.

The list includes whether or not the polling was approved by the Prime Minister, what other public funds were used for political research during the pandemic, if Scottish Secretary Alister Jack had been aware of the situation, who the results were shared with and when the government will publish them in full.

Mr Blackford said: “Revelations that Tory ministers directed emergency Covid contracts and public funds for their own political campaigning and gain are utterly damning.

“Despite the government's best attempts to play this down, the reality is that this scandal will not disappear. There are very serious questions for the Prime Minister and Cabinet Office minister to answer over how they siphoned off public money for their own political purposes.

“There must be accountability. If the Tory government genuinely believes it has nothing to hide or that it has done nothing wrong, then the Cabinet Office minister will set the record straight and the Prime Minister will commit to a full public inquiry.”

Public First was initially asked to run focus groups about the pandemic and the government's plans for economic recovery. However, this was extended in July last year to cover themes including "EU exit" and "attitudes to the UK Union".

Court papers identified £98,000 having been spent on focus groups that month in various parts of the country – including Edinburgh, Glasgow and Inverness as well as Newcastle, Bristol and Manchester – to ask questions “relating to the government's post-coronavirus economic renewal work and matters relating to the UK Union”.

A Cabinet Office spokesperson: said: “Any suggestion that the government carries out party-political research or polling is entirely false.

“Strengthening the Union and levelling up in every part of the UK are government priorities, and we regularly undertake research to support policy development.

“The judgement in this case makes clear that there was no suggestion of actual bias and that the decision to award the contract was not due to any personal or professional connections.”

The Scottish Government also carried out polling on attitudes to coronavirus, including "rating of government" questions, where people were invited to compare whether the Scottish and UK administrations were doing a good or a bad job.

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