Michael Gove is facing mounting pressure to fully explain his role in the government awarding major PPE contracts to a company first recommended to him by Tory peer Michelle Monet.
Asked in an interview on Thursday how he had responded to Lady Mone’s approach in May 2020, Gove said he had referred all offers of PPE to “the appropriate public channels”.
That explanation appears to contradict a chain of emails previously released under the Freedom of Information Act, which shed light on how the company, PPE Medpro, was added to a “VIP” track that prioritized politically connected companies. Emails suggest that after first being contacted by Mone, Gove suggested she contact another then minister, fellow Tory Theodore Agnew.
She then did so by emailing Gove and Lord Agnew using their private, non-government email addresses to tell them about PPE that could be procured from “my team in Hong Kong”. It was Agnew, who was then minister in the Cabinet Office responsible for procurement, who referred PPE Medpro to the VIP track.
Pressed repeatedly by Sky News presenter Kay Burley to recall how he responded to Mone’s offer, Gove, who was a minister at the time, said his job at the time was to ensure that anyone offering PPE was “referred to the right channel”.
He added: “I would have hoped that you or I, if someone said ‘I can provide PPE’, that we would have said, ‘Great. What you have to do is go to this official government process, to go through this procurement portal, to assess the quality of the contract you are seeking to secure.'”
However, the emails obtained by The Guardian appear to show Gove directing Mone not directly to officials but to a colleague.
They reveal how Mone made a sales pitch to Agnew for the supply of PPE. The government had at the time suspended normal competitive tendering processes and it would later emerge that they were rapidly moving towards a “VIP” track tender for PPE referred by politically connected individuals.
“I hope this email finds you well,” Mone wrote to Agnew, copying in Gove using their private email addresses. “Michael Gove has asked to contact you as soon as possible [sic]. However, we have managed to obtain PPE masks [sic] my team in Hong Kong. They have succeeded in securing 100,000 units. per day of KN95 [face masks] which is equivalent to N95 or FFP2. To commit to these 100,000 pcs. per day, could you please get back to me as soon as possible, as shipping also needs to be secured. Hope to see you in The upper house when we get out of lockdown. Sincerely, Michelle.”
Agnew replied from his personal email address and copied his private secretary’s government email address. “Michelle, thank you for your kind offer. I am forwarding this to the appropriate PPE work stream with Dept Health. They will ask you some basic questions about the details of the offer and hopefully go from there. Best regards Theodore.”
One of his staff then emailed a Covid PPE mailbox with “priority assessments” and asked them to “pick up Baroness Mone”. The employee added the words “VIA LORD AGNEW” and “VIP” to the subject line.
At the time, the company, PPE Medpro, didn’t even have one been incorporated. However, within weeks it had been awarded two government contracts worth £203m to supply millions of face masks and sterile surgical gowns.
Mone’s lawyers have previously said she never had any role “in the process by which contracts were awarded to PPE Medpro”. PPE Medpro previously said the company was “not awarded the contract because of corporate or personal links with the UK government or the Conservative Party”.
The Guardian was only able to establish that private emails had been used due to an apparent administrative error by the Cabinet Office, which did not properly redact documents released after a freedom of information request from the Guardian.
The Guardian contacted Gove to ask him how the account he gave of his response to Mone’s offer on Sky News, in which he said he referred all offers to “the relevant civilian channels”, was consistent with the proposal he actually Mone told contact Agnew. He didn’t answer.
The government has consistently defended the “VIP” process; spokespeople have maintained that contracts were awarded “in accordance with procurement rules and transparency guidelines and there are robust rules and processes in place to prevent conflicts of interest”. However, the use of the high-priority lane to assign contacts has been ruled illegal by the High Court.
Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader and the shadow chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, said: “Michael Gove must urgently come clean with the public about his personal involvement in the awarding of contracts to PPE Medpro during his time as chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.
“The government must undertake to publish all documents and correspondence related to the awarding of taxpayer contracts to PPE Medpro in the open.”