THE PRIME Minister has shrugged off calls for an inquiry into the use of a £560,000 pandemic research contract to test attitudes to the Union in Scotland.

The SNP's Westminster leader Ian Blackford told Boris Johnson that UK ministers had "sanctioned corrupt campaigning" and said the PM had proved that he "hasn't got a clue" when he told MPs in the House of Commons that he was unaware of the contract.

Mr Blackford's confrontation with the PM came after the Herald revealed that an urgent request to test attitudes to the Union by the office of Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove - under the cover of the Covid-19 contract given to Public First, which was meant to inform "vital" advice to shape the UK government's pandemic response.

READ MORE: 'Scandal' over Gove's use of pandemic research contract to test attitudes to the Union

It has emerged that in July, last year, services provided by Public First under a £560,000 Covid pandemic contract were extended to cover what was described as "qualitative research into EU exit topics and themes, re-building the economy following the Covid-19 crisis and attitudes to the UK Union".

The Herald:

The SNP has now called for an inquiry into what it called "misuse of public funds" by Tory ministers on conducting "political research" through the Covid contract.

It says that the revelations around the misuse of taxpayers’ money to pay for polling on attitudes to the Union shows the extent to which the UK Government is "preparing for a vote on Scotland’s future".

The UK government maintained on Tuesday night that it was within its right to undertake polling on matters of government policy - including the strength of the Union.

Public First is run by husband and wife policy specialists James Frayne and Rachel Wolf, both of whom previously worked with the Prime Minister's former aide Dominic Cummings and Mr Gove, who is the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.

According to the judgement, the award of the pandemic contract was made by a letter from Mr Gove dated June 5.

Papers reveal that the contract was extended to cover research into EU exit topics, re-building the economy following the Covid-19 crisis and attitudes to the UK Union.

One spend of £98,000 in August last year covering one of 11 sets of focus groups in July across the UK, covered Edinburgh, Glasgow, Inverness and the Highlands and related to the Government's post-Covid economic renewal work and matters relating to the UK Union.

Mr Blackford said in Prime Minister's Questions: "This morning, the Herald newspaper revealed that in the middle of a pandemic Tory ministers, secretly directed funds from an emergency Covid contract to carry out polling on the Union.

"This evidence was uncovered in official documents submitted to the High Court, so the prime minister would be well advised to be very careful in his answer to this question.

"And it's a very simple question, did the UK Government use a £560,000 emergency Covid contract to conduct constitutional campaigning on the Union.

The Herald:

Mr Johnson responded: "I'm not aware of the contract to which the right honourable gentleman refers, but what I can tell him, is that I think that the Union and the benefits of the Union have been incalculable throughout the Covid pandemic, and the vaccine rollout. Vaccines are being pioneered in Scotland, they've been brewed in Oxford, bottled in Wales, and rolled out throughout the UK and I think it's a tribute to the Union that he seeks to undermine."

Mr Blackford added: "The Prime Minister has just demonstrated, not for the first time that he hasn't got a clue.

"The answer to the question is yes. Whether it's redecorating the Downing Street flat or syphoning off Covid funds for political campaigning, the pattern is clear. The Tories simply can't be trusted.

"Because, let's be very clear as to what happened here, these emergency Covid contracts were supposed to be used for things like PPE for our brave doctors, and for nurses fighting Covid. Instead, during the height of this deadly pandemic, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, used these emergency contracts to commission political research, and I quote, on attitudes to the UK Union. What's worse, he handed these lucrative contracts to long term friends and former employees.

"In essence, this was a UK government contract that sanctioned corrupt campaigning, Prime Minister. If the Prime Minister has even a shred of credibility, will he now commit to a full public inquiry on this gross misuse of public funds."

The Herald:

Mr Johnson replied: "I can't think of a better use of public funds than making sure that the whole of the UK fights the Covid pandemic together. Thanks to the UK treasury, we were able to spend 470 billion pounds, supporting jobs and families in Scotland We were able to use the British army to send vaccines throughout the whole of the UK. I believe that the story of this last two years has shown the incalculable value of our Union, and the strength of our Union, and that we are better, Mr Speaker, together.

Earlier Mhairi Black, the SNP's shadow Scotland spokesperson, quizzed Scottish Secretary Alister Jack over the use of the contract and pressed for an inquiry.

She referred to the UK government being ordered to release “secret” polling on attitudes towards the Union and Scottish independence after an SNP MP won a Freedom of Information (FOI) appeal.

Tommy Sheppard originally called in 2019 for the Cabinet Office to release “all information relating to polling the general public on their perception on the strength of the Union since January 2018”.

The Edinburgh East MP also asked to be told the amount of public money spent on such polling.

But Michael Gove's Cabinet Office refused, citing a get-out clause in the FOI law which allows them to keep hidden any information relating to the development of government policy.

The Herald:

An information tribunal has ruled in the SNP MP’s favour, saying that the Cabinet Office’s arguments were “not wholly clear” and ordering it to release the information within 28 days.

Ms Black told the House of Commons: "My colleague, the member for Edinburgh East, successfully pursued a two year campaign calling on the US government to publish the results of the secret polling they commissioned using public funds to ask people in Scotland how they feel about the Union. So can the minister confirm that this information will be published in the next three weeks, as the tribunal has offered the UK government to do."

Mr Jack replied: "Well, the honourable lady makes a point that is one for the Cabinet Office, but the Cabinet Office are very clear that they do not spend money on political polling or research."

Ms Black added: "I'll move on from that rather bizarre answer because today we learn that the UK Government have actually used emergency Covid funds to publicly fund further polls on the Union, in a contract given to close associates of the Duchy of Lancaster. So would the minister say that this is an appropriate use of emergency funds, and will he back the SNP calls for an inquiry into this misuse of funds?"

Mr Jack responded: "Well, again I say, you should ask the Cabinet Office questions asking the Chancellor the Duchy of Lancaster to answer for his department, but again, I have spoken to the Cabinet Office about this, they don't engage in political polling, and they're very clear about that."