Boris Johnson made “absolutely no apology at all” for text message exchanges about businessman Sir James Dyson’s concerns about the tax status of his employees, amid claims of “sleaze and cronyism” in his Government.
The Prime Minister personally promised Sir James he would “fix” an issue over the tax status of his workers after he was directly lobbied by the entrepreneur, who was seeking to build ventilators at the height of the coronavirus crisis.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer suggested it was “one rule for those that have got the Prime Minister’s phone number, another for everybody else”.
The BBC said it has seen a series of text messages between Mr Johnson and Sir James after the businessman was unable to get the assurances he was seeking from the Treasury.
The exchanges took place in March last year at the start of the pandemic, when the Government was appealing to firms to supply ventilators amid fears the NHS could run out.
Sir James, whose firm is now based in Singapore, wrote to the Treasury asking for an assurance that his staff would not have to pay additional tax if they came to the UK to work on the project.
But when he failed to receive a reply, the BBC said he took up the matter directly with the Prime Minister.
He said in a text that the firm was ready but that “sadly” it seemed no-one wanted them to proceed.
Mr Johnson replied: “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.”
When Sir James then sought a further assurance, Mr Johnson replied: “James, I am First Lord of the Treasury and you can take it that we are backing you to do what you need.”
Two weeks later, Mr Sunak told the Commons Treasury Committee that the tax status of people who came to the UK to provide specific help during the pandemic would not be affected.
Under the ministerial code, ministers are supposed to have an official present when discussing government business and to report back to their department as quickly as possible if a conversation does take place where that is not possible.
Challenged about the issue at Prime Minister’s Questions, Mr Johnson said: “I make absolutely no apology at all for shifting heaven and earth and doing everything I possibly could, as I think any prime minister would in those circumstances, to secure ventilators for the people of this country.”