Mr Johnson has promised to provide details of the exchanges to MPs, but his official spokesperson said there were no plans for a leak inquiry to establish how messages from the prime minister’s personal mobile phone got into the public domain.
The PM insisted that agreeing to “fix” Dyson’s problems with tax was “the right thing to do” as the inventor offered to help the UK supply ventilators for hospitals at the outset of the coronavirus pandemic last year.
But a spokesman for Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said there was evidence the messages may have breached the code governing ministers’ conduct.
And Starmer himself told the House of Commons 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.
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 status of staff at his Singapore-based company working on 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 was “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.
And challenged later over whether the PM had breached the ministerial code, his spokesperson said: “He didn’t. The prime minister abides by the ministerial code.”
But a Labour spokesman told reporters: “There is evidence that the code may very well have been breached and we will be following that up in the coming days.”
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 Capital 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 secretary 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?”
Labour sought to drive home its sleaze message by sending activists wearing masks of Mr Johnson, Mr Sunak and health secretary Matt Hancock to Downing Street with brown envelopes addressed to ““Tory chums, Dodgy contracts, Jobs for mates”.
Mr Johnson’s spokesperson said the PM had been “transparent throughout”, informing civil servants of Dyson’s approach so that they could provide advice to ministers before drafting changes to the law to ensure highly skilled engineers did not have to pay extra tax when coming to the UK to work on the ventilator drive.
In the event, Dyson’s ventilators were not needed, and the businessman has said he lost £20m on the project, but would not accept any public money.
The spokesperson defended Mr Johnson’s actions: “What this issue sets out is that he did everything he possibly could at the height of the pandemic when there were genuine fears we could quickly run out of ventilators. It was an extraordinary time and we did everything we could to protect the public.”
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