The prime minister insisted that agreeing to “fix” Dyson’s problems with tax was “the right thing to do” as he fought to supply ventilators for hospitals at the outset of the coronavirus pandemic.
But Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said that the leaked messages showed a culture of “favours, privileged access, tax breaks for mates” at the heart of government which was not available for steel workers facing redundancy, self-employed businesses at risk of bankruptcy or NHS staff needing a pay rise.
Downing Street rejected Labour claims that the PM’s contacts with Dyson may have breached the ministerial code, insisting that he was “transparent throughout” in informing civil servants of the inventor’s approach.
But Mr Johnson’s official spokesman told reporters that there would be no leak inquiry and declined to speculate on how the messages reached the public domain.
Johnson and Starmer clashed at prime minister’s questions in the House of Commons hours after the BBC published text messages which showed that Mr Dyson approached the PM direct last year after failing to get a satisfactory response from the Treasury over concerns about the tax treatment for staff developing Covid-19 ventilators for the NHS.
“I will fix it tomo! We need you. It looks fantastic,” Mr Johnson replied, before texting 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.”
Labour branded the exchange “jaw-dropping”, but former prime minister Tony Blair said it “hard to get worked up about this”, adding: ‘I think there’s got to be a certain degree of understanding if you’re in the middle of a huge crisis like this.”
Challenged at PMQs, Mr Johnson said: “I make absolutely no apology at all for shifting heaven and Earth and doing everything I possibly could in - as any Prime Minister would in those circumstances - to secure ventilators for the people of this country and to save lives.”
Mr Johnson told MPs he had “absolutely nothing to conceal” and was “happy to share all the details” with the Commons.
But Sir Keir said the messages showed that Mr Johnson was ready to give “preferential treatment” to wealthy friends with access to his private phone number.
He linked the “scandal” with the furore over former prime minister David Cameron’s use of private text messages to lobby senior ministers for help for failed finance firm Greensill and its founder Lex Greensill.
And he demanded to know why the PM insisted on holding on to the power to act as judge and jury over the inquiry he has ordered into the Greensill affair.
“There’s a pattern to this government,” said the Labour leader.
“The prime minister is fixing tax breaks for his friends. The chancellor is pushing the Treasury to help Lex Greensill. the health secretary is meeting Greensill for drinks and David Cameron is texting anybody who’ll reply.
“Every day there are new allegations about this Conservative government - dodgy PPE deals, tax breaks for their mates, the health sectretary owning shares in a company delivering NHS services. Sleaze, sleaze, sleaze. And it’s all on his watch.
“With this scandal now firmly centred on him, how on earth does he expect people to believe that he is the person to clean this mess up?”
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