Dark Money Investigations: Investigation

Revealed: Tory-linked PR firm given £3m COVID-19 contract without tender

Topham Guerin was behind controversial Conservative stunts in the 2019 general election. Now the firm is negotiating for more government work.

Peter Geoghegan
Screenshot 2020-05-28 at 15.49.09.png
Peter Geoghegan David Conn Russell Scott Rob Evans
3 August 2020, 1.00pm
Stay at home?
PA Video/PA Wire/PA Images

The political communications company behind the Conservative Party’s controversial 2019 digital campaign strategy received a £3 million government contract to work on COVID-19 messaging without a competitive tender and is now negotiating with the Cabinet Office for more work, openDemocracy and The Guardian can reveal.

Topham Guerin, founded in 2016 by two young New Zealanders, Sean Topham and Ben Guerin, specialises in producing images and videos for social media and has worked for a number of rightwing political parties.

It was behind two Tory election campaign stunts that received widespread criticism: renaming the official Conservative Party Twitter account “factcheckUK” during the leaders’ debate, and setting up a website presented as Labour’s manifesto.

On 17 March, shortly before the UK went into lockdown, Topham Guerin was contracted by the Cabinet Office to work on the government’s public communications.

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Under emergency COVID-19 regulations that allow the government to ditch usual competitive tendering practices, no tender was conducted to allow other companies to bid for that work. A six-month contract was subsequently formalised on 7 May, with a retrospective 17 March start date, for a total of £3 million. The details were not made public until mid-July.

Topham Guerin is the latest Conservative Party-linked company known to have received contracts from the government under the emergency procurement rules.

Others include Faculty – an AI company that worked for the prime minister’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, on the Vote Leave campaign in 2016 – and Public First, a policy and research firm owned by two long-term associates of both Cummings and the Cabinet Office minister, Michael Gove.

The Topham Guerin contract sets out the high-level responsibilities of the firm, including that its staff will attend daily meetings at Downing Street or the Cabinet Office, lead the branding strategy and produce social media content.

The contract also said the role would include weekly meetings with the British army’s information unit, the 77th Brigade, “to review fake news mitigation efforts and provide recommendations on further actions to take”.

A Cabinet Office spokesman said that Topham Guerin had principally been producing social media messages, and that the meetings with the 77th Brigade never took place.

The Guardian has previously reported that Topham and Guerin, who are in their 20s, worked on huge propaganda campaigns for CTF Partners, run by the Tories’ long-term strategist Lynton Crosby, on behalf of clients including major polluters, the Saudi Arabian government and anti-cycling groups.

After its work on the Tory election campaign last year, Topham Guerin took on more staff at its Mayfair office in January and February. Among these appointments was Deborah Feldman, a former Conservative staffer who previously worked for CTF as managing director.

Ben Guerin has been credited with involvement in developing the Stay at Home, Save Lives, Protect the NHS slogan that the government used successfully for the lockdown announced by Boris Johnson on 23 March. Guerin was reportedly on a call on 19 March with Johnson’s director of communications Lee Cain; Isaac Levido, who ran the Tories’ election campaign and has also been hired by the government for COVID-19 messaging, and two former senior campaigners for Vote Leave in the Brexit referendum: Henry de Zoete, and Paul Stephenson, whose company Hanbury Strategy is now involved in appointing ministerial special advisers for the Tories.

The Telegraph reported that on the call Guerin mentioned that “Stay at Home, Save Lives,” was already being used as a successful slogan in several other countries. Cain was said to have added “protect the NHS.” After Byline Times reported the £3million contract, health secretary Matt Hancock declined to answer questions about Topham Guerin's government work.

While the £3 million contract with Topham Guerin runs until 16 September, the Cabinet Office is currently negotiating a new contract with the firm. It is not clear what the proposed contract is for, or if it will be tendered competitively. The company did not respond to a question about the new contract, and a Cabinet Office spokesman said they did not comment on ongoing negotiations.

A spokesman for Topham Guerin said the firm, which started in New Zealand politics and worked on Scott Morrison’s Liberal Party election victory in Australia last year, was selected for the COVID-19 contract due to its “wealth of experience in communications”.

“Topham Guerin were awarded a contract to help advise and generate social media content to support coronavirus communications,” the spokesman added. “This has been published on gov.uk in the normal way, in line with transparency rules. This work has helped to ensure that vitally important public health messages are effectively communicated to the public.”

The spokesman also said the company had provided direction for the Enjoy Summer Safely campaign by the advertising agency Mullenlowe. “Topham Guerin are proud to have worked with both the New Zealand and UK governments to provide creative and digital support for their all-of-government responses to the COVID-19 crisis.”

However, the shadow Cabinet Office minister, Rachel Reeves, criticised the awarding of the contract without a tender to the former campaigners on behalf of the Tories. 

“Yet again the government has handed a significant public contract to a company with a recent relationship with the Conservative Party without any normal tendering process,” Reeves said. “Given the huge importance of communications during a deadly pandemic, work of this magnitude must surely be undertaken by longstanding, proven expertise in public health communications. This is part of a disturbing pattern where the Conservative Government appears to have used emergency COVID-19 powers to blur boundaries and spend public money with party political associates rather than source the best people for the job."

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