Boris Johnson faces claims of “sleaze at the heart of No10” after he promised a billionaire he’d “fix” a tax issue in personal texts.
Labour demanded answers after the BBC published messages the Prime Minister sent to Sir James Dyson last year.
The incident unfolded at the height of the Covid first wave when the government was urging private firms, including Dyson, to build ventilators to stop the NHS running out.
Singapore-based Dyson’s holding company, Weybourne Limited, wrote to Chancellor Rishi Sunak on March 15 to ensure there would be no change to the tax status of workers who came to the UK for the project.
But days later the vacuum cleaner tycoon then texted Boris Johnson personally to press the issue, according to the BBC.
Shortly afterwards, on April 9, the Chancellor confirmed people’s tax status would not be hit if they came to the UK to work on the ventilator challenge between March 1 and June 1.
The content of the messages has not been disputed in statements either by No10 or by Sir James Dyson.
However, Dyson insisted James Dyson “did not initiate contact with the PM” and it was Boris Johnson who made urgent direct contact with the entrepreneur over the issue.
Dyson also insisted the communications with the Prime Minister and Chancellor were not “private” when they were also channelled openly through their staff.
A statement sent from the firm to the Mirror added: “When swift decisions are required and time is of the essence, why wouldn’t you seek to deal directly with the decision maker?
“At this time, Dyson and all those engaged in the Government’s ventilator project were engaged in a race against time to save lives.”
Sir James insisted Dyson made a £20m loss on the programme and it was “absurd” to present his messages as “anything other than seeking compliance with rules”.
But a Labour Party spokesman said today: “These are jaw-dropping revelations.
“Boris Johnson is now front and centre of the biggest lobbying scandal in a generation, and Tory sleaze has reached the heart of Downing Street.
“The Prime Minister appears to have used the power of his office to personally hand public money to a billionaire friend in the form of tax breaks.
“If true, it is clearer than ever there is one rule for the Conservatives and their friends, another for everyone else.
“The stench of sleaze has been building up around this Conservative Government for months. Boris Johnson must now agree to a full, transparent and independent inquiry into lobbying – and end the scandal of Conservative politicians abusing taxpayer money.”
According to the BBC, Sir James told the PM: “We are ready. But nobody seems to want us to proceed. Sadly, James”.
Mr Johnson replied: “I will fix it tomo! We need you. It looks fantastic”.
He then sent a second message saying: “Rishi says it is fixed!! We need you here”.
Sir James is said to have replied saying “thanks!”, before then once again seeking assurances over workers’ tax status.
His message is said to have said one issue, the Country Day Count issue, was “fixed” but another around Work Days was not.
“Dear Boris, I’m afraid that we need a response to our letter below from Rishi please?” said Sir James’ text, the BBC reported.
The PM replied: “James I am first lord of the treasury and you can take it that we are backing you to do what you need.”
A government spokeswoman, who did not dispute the content of the messages, told the Mirror: “At the height of the pandemic, there were genuine fears that we would quickly run out of ventilators, leaving the NHS unable to treat patients and putting many lives at risk.
“As the public would expect, we did everything we could in extraordinary times to protect our citizens and get access to the right medical equipment.”
Sir James faced criticism in 2019 after it was announced he was moving Dyson’s HQ to Singapore, after he vocally backed Brexit.
The announcement meant Dyson would no longer be a British registered company and Singapore would become its main tax base.
Sir James was described by Forbes in 2016 as a “long-time Conservative Party member”. However, Dyson today insisted he was not a supporter of or donor to the Tory party.
The latest revelations come days after more than half a dozen probes into lobbying were launched across Whitehall.
Questions have been raised about access to senior ministers after David Cameron texted Chancellor Rishi Sunak trying to access Covid finance for doomed bank Greensill.
Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden today defended the contact between Sir James Dyson and the Prime Minister.
He told BBC Breakfast: “We were at the absolute height of the Covid crisis. It was a genuine national emergency.
“And we had a real need to get ventilators in this country as part of the national ventilator challenge – we were successful, we massively increased the number of ventilators, helping to save many many lives.
“I think what happened in this case was that Dyson was seeking an assurance that people from his ventilators that came to the UK to help this weren’t disadvantaged.
“This went through Parliament in a transparent way, there was an opportunity for MPs to be able to vote on it, and it was a very temporary measure.”
Dyson did not dispute the content of the messages when prompted by the Mirror. However, the firm said it was “utterly misleading and false to imply that any benefit or advantage was being sought”, beyond ensuring the firm and staff would not be penalised for helping the ventilator project.
Sir James said in a statement: “When the Prime Minister rang me to ask Dyson to urgently build ventilators, of course I said yes.
“We were in the midst of an national emergency and I am hugely proud of Dyson’s response – I would do the same again if asked.
“Our ventilator cost Dyson £20m, freely given to the national cause.
“And it is absurd to suggest that the urgent correspondence was anything other than seeking compliance with rules, as 450 Dyson people – in UK and Singapore – worked around the clock, seven days a week to build potentially life-saving equipment at a time of dire need.
“Mercifully they were not required as medical understanding of the virus evolved.
“Neither Weybourne nor Dyson received any benefit from the project, indeed commercial projects were delayed, and Dyson voluntarily covered the £20m of development costs.
“Not one penny was claimed from any Government, in any jurisdiction, in relation to Covid-19”.