Boris Johnson has said he will publish his text messages and “make absolutely no apology” for the exchanges with businessman James Dyson promising to “fix” tax status for the firm to help build ventilators.
Keir Starmer accused the government of “sleaze, sleaze, sleaze” after leaked texts from Johnson promised that the pro-Brexit billionaire’s employees would not have to pay extra tax if they came to the UK to make ventilators during the pandemic.
Johnson pledged: “I will fix it tomo! We need you. It looks fantastic.”
The prime minister then texted him again, saying: “[Chancellor] Rishi [Sunak] says it is fixed!! We need you here,” according to the BBC.
At prime minister’s questions on Wednesday, Johnson was bullish about his response, saying: “I make absolutely no apology at all for shifting heaven and earth and doing everything I possibly could, as any prime minister would in those circumstances, to secure ventilators for the people in this country and to save lives.”
The SNP leader, Ian Blackford, said the prime minister must “publish all personal exchanges on these contracts before the end of the day”.
Johnson said: “There’s absolutely nothing to conceal about this and I am happy to share all the details with the house, as indeed I have shared them with my officials immediately.”
Starmer said the story showed the prime minister was “lobbied by a wealthy businessman and a close friend for a change in the tax rules. The prime minister responded, I’ll fix it.”
The Labour leader said the texts raised serious concerns about preferential treatment for those with the prime minister’s personal number. “How many other people with the prime minister’s personal number has he given preferential treatment to?”
He said that at the heart of the lobbying scandal, including the lobbying by David Cameron to Sunak on behalf of the now-collapsed Greensill Capital, were “people’s jobs and wasted taxpayers’ money.”.
He said thousands of jobs at Liberty Steel were on the line in Hartlepool and Rotherham following Greensill’s collapse. “The prime minister hasn’t fixed that, in fact he’s done nothing to help steel workers. Is it now quite literally one rule for those that have a prime minister’s own number, and another for everybody else?”
Johnson said Starmer was disparaging the ventilator challenge, of which Dyson was part, and had previously attacked the vaccines’ taskforce, both of which he said had delivered great results. Dyson’s ventilators were never approved for use in the NHS for Covid-19 patients.
‘“We take the tough decisions that are necessary to protect the people of this country and get things done,” Johnson said.
Starmer said there was “a pattern to this government” – referencing Cameron’s texts to Sunak and other ministers and officials and the informal drink between health secretary Matt Hancock and Cameron with Greensill’s founder.
“Every day there are new allegations about this Conservative government. Dodgy PPE deals, tax deals for their mates, the health secretary owns shares in a company delivering NHS services. Sleaze, sleaze, sleaze, all on his watch. With this scandal now firmly centered on him, how on earth does he expect people to believe that he is the person to clean this mess up?”
The number of lobbying scandals across Westminster has prompted multiple inquiries into Greensill and the accountability of ministers and officials, including an independent inquiry by corporate lawyer Nigel Boardman, ordered by No 10.
One inquiry, by the public Accounts committee, is set to question Treasury officials on Thursday where the Dyson texts are likely to be explored.
A Whitehall source said Dyson did not text the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, directly and that the only correspondence received by the Treasury was official letters from Dyson’s holding company, Weybourne Limited, asking Sunak for assurances on its tax status. HMT later wrote back to confirm what Johnson had promised Dyson.
Another Whitehall source said there was “a process to be followed” – a hint that the Treasury may not have been prepared to make similar informal assurances as Dyson received from No 10.
Dyson told the BBC he was “hugely proud” of his firm’s response in “the midst of a national emergency”, and that he would do the same again if asked.