Public First

Public First

Background

Public First is a Westminster-based research and PR firm founded in 2016 by political strategists and former Conservative advisers, Rachel Wolf and James Frayne. [1] 

Public First helps its clients “understand and influence public opinion through research and targeted communications campaigns,” crafting “policy ideas that Governments can realistically apply to difficult issues,” according to its website. [2]

According to its entries in the UK’s lobbying register, its clients have included shale gas exploration company Cuadrilla Resources as well as the trade body, the Internet Association, which represents big tech firms including Uber, Google and Amazon. [3] 

The firm was until recently based on Tufton Street which is home to a network of free-market thinktanks and lobby groups with links to climate science denial. Several members of staff have previously worked for Tufton Street groups including the TaxPayers’ Alliance and official Vote Leave campaign. [4]

Wolf and Frayne have both worked with Cabinet Office Minister, Michael Gove, and government Chief Adviser, Dominic Cummings while Wolf is a previous adviser to Boris Johnson[5], [6], [7] 

During the COVID-19 crisis, the firm received over £1 million in contracts from the government without going through a legally required tender process. While this was justified as part of the government’s emergency COVID-19 response, it later emerged that parts of the work related to Brexit. [8], [9]

Stance on Climate Change

Public First has worked on behalf of shale gas exploration company Cuadrilla Resources and at least two current and former members of staff have worked on behalf of the shale gas developers. [10]  

Former Labour MP, INEOS consultant and Commissioner for Shale Gas, Natascha Engel, is a Public First Partner, while former head of Westbourne Communications’ Energy Unit, Jennifer Powers, recently worked for the firm as an Associate. [11], [12], [13]

Although she has been criticised for Public First’s links with the fracking industry, co-founder Rachel Wolf, has said she is supportive of the UK’s net zero target and provides the Secretariat to the “Zero Carbon Commission.” [10], [14], [15]

The Commission is part of the “Zero Carbon Campaign” which advocates a policy of carbon pricing to meet the UK’s climate targets, and which was founded by Stephen Fitzpatrick, founder and CEO of independent electricity provider, Ovo. [16], [15]

Funding

Public First clients have included: [10], [17]

  • Cuadrilla Resources
  • The Internet Association
  • Oxford University
  • The University of Nottingham
  • Universities UK
  • Pearson Publishing  

Annual Reports

Public First reported net assets of £656,623 up from £226,874 in 2018, according to Companies House. [18]

Key People

Rachel Wolf is the Founding Partner of Public First. She began her career in politics in 2006 working for then Shadow Higher Education Minister, Boris Johnson before working for then Shadow Education Secretary Michael Gove alongside then civil servant Dominic Cummings. [19], [5]

Wolf went on to establish the New Schools Network, (NSN) in 2010, a registered charity which was assisted by Cummings, and which attracted controversy after it received £500,000 funding from Gove’s Department of Education without the competitive tender process usually required by law. [5], [20], [21]

In 2016, Wolf and Frayne established, “Parents and Teachers for Excellence,” (PTE) an educational reform group for which Vote Leave’s Jon Moynihan was a Board Member and which was accused of “astroturfing”, a strategy where professional lobbyists pose as a grassroots body in order to gain support. [22]

In 2019, Wolf was appointed by Boris Johnson to co-write the Conservative Party’s 2019 manifesto alongside head of Downing Street’s Policy Unit and former Spiked contributor, Munira Mirza. Wolf has described Public First as a “campaigning thinktank.” [23], [24], [25]

James Frayne is the husband of Rachel Wolf and the other Founding Partner of Public First. [26]

Frayne has held roles at PR companies Westbourne Communications and Portland Communications, and as campaign director at the anti-tax group, the TaxPayers’ Alliance. [27], [28]

In 2011, he was appointed Director of Communications at the Department for Education by then Education Secretary Michael Gove where he worked alongside Gove’s then Special Adviser, Dominic Cummings. [29], [7]

In 2004, Frayne and Cummings worked on the successful campaign against the creation of a devolved regional assembly in the North East and which Cummings, who was later to become Director of Vote Leave, described as “a training exercise for an EU referendum.” [9]

Frayne and Cummings also worked together on the “Business for Sterling” campaign in 2000. [9]

Natascha Engel is a Partner at Public First. [11]

Engel was Labour MP for North East Derbyshire from 2005 to 2017 and Deputy Speaker of the House of Commons from 2015 to 2017. Following her election defeat, Engel was employed as a consultant for the fracking and chemicals firm INEOS. [31], [32]

In October 2018, Engel was appointed by the Conservative government to the role of “Commissioner for Shale Gas,” a role from which she resigned six months later, criticising the government’s policy on seismic tremors as too sensitive. [33], [34]

Engel was revealed to have deleted routine email correspondence with fracking companies during her time as Commissioner, following a Freedom of Information request from Greenpeace’s investigative journalism unit, Unearthed. [35], [36]

Actions

June 2020

Between March and June 2020, Public First received £840,000 worth of contracts from the Cabinet Office without going through a competitive tendering process. [9]

The government justified the absence of such a process through policies put in place for the rapid delivery of an emergency COVID-19 response. However it later emerged that portions of the work contracted to Public First related to Brexit, with entries in the Cabinet Office’s register referring to “EU Exit Comms,” and “EU Exit prog.” [9]

Wolf, Frayne and Public First Partner Gabriel Milland had all previously worked for Minister for Michael Gove and with his Government Chief Adviser, Dominic Cummings. [9]

October 2019

In October 2019, Wolf was appointed to co-write the Conservative Party’s manifesto for the upcoming General Election in a move which received criticism over conflict of interest due to Wolf and Public First’s work for private clients including Cuadrilla Resources. [10]

Related Organizations

  • Cuadrilla ResourcesClient of Public First. [10]
  • Vote Leave Public First co-founder, James Frayne, worked with former Vote Leave Director, Dominic Cummings at the Department of Education and on a number of campaigns dating back to 2000. Co-founder Rachel Wolf worked with Cummings while advising Michael Gove as a Shadow Minister and later at the New Schools Network. Public First Associate Director, Tom Banks was a Regional Director for Vote Leave while fellow Associate Director, Tom Waterhouse was Deputy Head of Ground Campaign. Vote Leave’s Jon Moynihan was a Board Member of Frayne and Wolf’s educational initiative, Parents and Teachers for Excellence. [9], [21], [5], [22]
  • Westbourne Communications – Public First co-founder James Frayne worked for Westbourne from 2010 – 2011. Jennifer Powers, an Associate at Public First in 2019, was a Partner and Managing Director at the firm and formerly led its “energy practice.” The company, which was bought by fellow PR firm Cicero in 2018, represented shale gas companies Centrica and Cuadrilla. Its founder James Bethell previously boasted about fighting what he described as the “insurgency” tactics of anti-fracking campaigners. [27], [13], [12], [37], [38] 
  • TaxPayers’ Alliance (TPA) – Frayne is a former Campaign Director for the TPA, a role that was also held in 2007 by Public Public First Director, Blair Gibbs. Public First Associate Director, Tom Banks, was the TPA’s Grassroots Campaigns Manager from 2016 to 2017. [28], [39], [40]

Contact & Address

Between July and August 2020, Public First updated its address to the following location in Nottingham. [41]

143 Tamworth Road

Nottingham

NG10 1BY

It had formerly been based at 11 Tufton Street. [4]

Social Media

Resources

  1. Freddie Whitaker. “New policy role for former government education adviser Jonathan Simons,” Schools Week, November 28, 2018. Archived November 6, 2020. Archive.fo URL: https://archive.fo/GlOVa

  2. Homepage,” Public First. Archived October 27, 2020. Archive.fo URL: https://archive.fo/Uqd91

  3. Benjamin Kentish. “General election: Boris Johnson hires fracking lobbyist to help draft Tory manifesto,” The Independent, October 30, 2019. Archived November 6, 2020. Archive.fo URL: https://archive.fo/mJMkS

  4. Homepage,” Public First. Archived July 16, 2020. Archive.fo URL: https://archive.fo/Im6Nh

  5. Jess Staufenberg. “Rachel Wolf,” Schools Week, July 23, 2019. Archived November 5, 2020. Archive.fo URL: https://archive.fo/Sbdme

  6. Freddie Whitaker. “New policy role for former government education adviser Jonathan Simons,” Schools Week, November 28, 2018. Archived November 6, 2020. Archive.fo URL: https://archive.fo/GlOVa

  7. Katherine Sellgren. “Gove summoned before MPs over advisers’ ‘bullying’ case,” BBC News, February 27, 2020. Archived November 6, 2020. Archive.fo URL: https://archive.fo/jO3CE

  8. Russell Scott, Peter Geohegan and Jenna Corderoy. “Cummings and Gove allies won fresh COVID for A-level crisis work,” OpenDemocracy, October 1, 2020. Archived November 6, 2020. Archive.fo URL: https://archive.fo/pTJMw

  9. Peter Geohegan and David Conn. “Revealed: Key Cummings and Gove ally given COVID-19 contract without open tender,” OpenDemocracy, July 10, 2020. Archived October 28. 2020. Archive.fo URL: https://archive.fo/P4KH6

  10. Benjamin Kentish. “General election: Boris Johnson hires fracking lobbyist to help draft Tory manifesto,” The Independent, October 30, 2019. Archived November 6, 2020. Archive.fo URL: https://archive.fo/mJMkS

  11. Our people,” Public First. Archived July 11, 2019. Archive.fo URL: http://archive.fo/77QIz

  12. Marr Cartmell. “Westbourne Communications appoints Duncan Sedgwick to lead energy practice,” PR Week, November 12, 2012. Archived November 6, 2020. Archive.fo URL: https://archive.fo/mHuYI

  13. Jennifer Powers,” LinkedIn. Archived October 28, 2020. Archived .pdf on file at DeSmog.

  14. Rachel Wolf, “Net Zero risks upending our lives and livelihoods. Here’s why carbon pricing gives it a better chance of working,” Conservative Home, October 2, 2020. Archived November 6, 2020. Archive.fo URL: https://archive.fo/wg7gV

  15. The Team,” Zero Carbon Campaign. Archived November 13, 2020. Archive.fo URL: https://archive.fo/hOkUQ

  16. About Us,” Zero Carbon Campaign. Archived November 6, 2020. Archive.fo URL: https://archive.fo/hOkUQ

  17. Former Vote Leave campaigner and education specialist to join Public First,” PR Week, November 7, 2019. Archived October 28, 2020. Archive.fo URL: https://archive.fo/yUQD4

  18. Public First Limited – Company No: 10149826 – Filing History,” Companies House. Archived November 5, 2020. Archive.fo URL: https://archive.fo/jL3le

  19. Rachel Wolf,” Public First. Archived October 28, 2020. Archive.fo URL: https://archive.fo/lpS8j

  20. Tom Clark. “New Schools Network lacks transparency,” The Guardian, July 6, 2010. Archived November 6, 2020. Archive.fo URL: https://archive.fo/3Jz2p

  21. Maeve McClenaghan. “Gove aide given parliamentary pass while at New Schools Network,” The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, November 18, 2011. Archived November 6, 2020. Archive.fo URL: https://archive.fo/UVjBM

  22. John Dickens. “Vote Leave campaigner and Tory donor behind Parents and Teachers for Excellence campaign,” Schools Week, September 22, 2016. Archived November 5, 2020. Archive.fo URL: https://archive.fo/O9WEG

  23. Rachel Wolf. “I co-wrote this Conservative manifesto. And so can say that its focus was on neither the rich nor the poor,” Conservative Home, December 16, 2019. Archived October 28, 2020. Archive.fo URL: https://archive.fo/4laMv

  24. Munira Mirza,” Spiked. Archived October 28, 2020. Archive.fo URL: https://archive.fo/OFt80

  25. Matt Honeycombe-Foster. “POLITICO London Influence: Meet Public First – Lobbying Labour – BoJo bro’s new job,” Politico, October 22, 2020. Archived November 5, 2020. Archive.fo URL: https://archive.fo/QUL8C

  26. James Frayne,” Public First. Archived October 28, 2020. Archive.fo URL: https://archive.fo/aWJvk

  27. David Singleton. “Department for Education hires James Frayne as comms chief,” PR Week, February 24, 2011. Archived July 11, 2019. Archive.fo URL: http://archive.fo/t1JW8

  28. James Frayne,” Harriman House. Archived July 11, 2019. Archive.fo URL: http://archive.fo/daUvj

  29. Patrick Wintour. “Michael Gove opts for a better Frayne of mind in retelling message,” The Guardian, February 25, 2020. Archived November 13, 2020. Archive.fo URL: https://archive.fo/eEMnZ

  30. Harry Cole and James Heale. “The women behind Boris Johnson’s WOMANIFESTO! Two female election gurus are drafted in to draw up the most feminist Tory manifesto ever,” The Mail on Sunday, October 5, 2019. Archived October 28, 2020. Archive.fo URL: https://archive.fo/qqicq

  31. Natascha Engel,” Parliament.UK. Archived July 11, 2019. Archived .pdf on file at DeSmog.

  32. Liam Norcliffe. “Decision by former MP to link up with fracking firm criticised,” Derbyshire Times, December 6, 2017. Archived July 11, 2019. Archive.fo URL: http://archive.fo/zJMOM

  33. Natascha Engel appointed as Commissioner for Shale Gas,” Gov.UK, October 5, 2018. Archived July 11, 2019. Archive.fo URL: http://archive.fo/ktS71

  34. August Graham. “Fracking tsar launches broadside against government’s de facto ban in resignation letter,” City AM, April 28, 2019. Archived July 11, 2019. Archived .pdf on file at DeSmog.

  35. Russell Scott, Zach Boren. “UK fracking commissioner admits to deleting correspondence with industry,” Unearthed, April 29, 2019. Archived July 11, 2019. Archive.fo URL: http://archive.fo/bYlLK

  36. Maja Pawinska Sims. “Cicero acquires Westbourne to create £7m public affairs agency,” PRovoke, June 19, 2018. Archived November 6, 2020. Archive.fo URL: https://archive.fo/K6bnn

  37. Kyla Mandel. “Mapped: Here’s How Many PR Companies Lobby for Fossil Fuels in the UK,” DeSmog, July 24, 2017.

  38. Tamsin Cave and Andy Rowell. “The Corporate PR Industry’s Sneaky War On Internet Activism,” Vice, March 24, 2014. Archived December 19, 2018. Archive.fo URL: http://archive.fo/C4QAc

  39. TPA Launches West Midlands Campaign,” The TaxPayers’ Alliance, July 31, 2007. Archived November 6, 2020. Archive.fo URL: https://archive.fo/YGcrD

  40. Tom Banks,” LinkedIn. Archived November 6, 2020. Archived .pdf on file at DeSmog.

  41. Homepage,” Public First. Archived August 5, 2020. Archive.fo URL: https://archive.fo/L6xX4

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