Sir Keir Starmer has grilled Boris Johnson during Prime Minister’s Questions over alleged tax breaks he gave to Sir James Dyson’s employees.
The leader of the opposition pressed Johnson over lobbying concerns during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Citing correspondence between Dyson and Johnson over tax breaks, Sir Keir told the Commons: “What does the prime minister think is the right thing to do if he receives a text message from a billionaire Conservative supporter asking him to fix tax rules?”
Johnson responded: “If he’s referring to the request from James Dyson, 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.
“And to save lives and to roll out a ventilator procurement which the Labour-controlled Public Accounts Committee themselves said was a benchmark for procurement.”
Sir Keir asked how many people with Johnson’s personal number have been given preferential treatment.
“Let’s be clear what these texts show. The prime minister was lobbied by a wealthy businessman and a close friend for a change in the tax rules, tax rules.
“The prime minister responded, ‘I’ll fix it’, then after a discussion with the chancellor – who everybody seems to be lobbying these days – the prime minister texted his friend to say, ‘it’s fixed’. How many other people with the prime minister’s personal number has he given preferential treatment to?”
But Johnson insisted it was a necessity for the government to support Dyson in his endeavours.
He told MPs: “I recall (Sir Keir) at the time saying that we should do everything that we could to get more ventilators, and indeed he congratulated the rollout of the ventilators, he said well done to everybody involved for the ventilator challenge.
“I just remind the House what we were facing in March last year, which was that we had a new virus which was capable of killing people in ways that we didn’t understand, the only way to help them was to intubate them and put them on ventilation, we had 9,000 ventilators in this country, we secured 22,000 as a result of that ventilator challenge.
“I think it was entirely the right thing to do to work with all potential makers of ventilators at that time and by the way, so does the former leader of the Labour party, a man to whom I think he should listen, Tony Blair.”
It led to the leader of the opposition to hit back: “It’s his former leader, his friend I think – Dave – who’s at the heart of much of this.”
He said there was a “pattern to this government” when it comes to cronynism.
“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 will reply.
“Every day there are new allegations about this Conservative government: dodgy PPE deals; tax breaks for their mates; the Health Secretary owns 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?”
Defending the government’s procurement during the pandemic and criminal justice reforms, Johnson replied: “I’ll tell you why this government is doing the right thing at the right time because the difference between us and the Labour Party is, I’m afraid, staringly obvious and we get on with taking the tough decisions to protect the people of this country and to take our country forward – uniting and levelling up.”
He added: “Captain Hindsight snipes continually from the sidelines; this Government gets on with delivering on the people’s priorities.”
The BBC reported that Sir James had sent Johnson a series of messages in March last year to get assurances his employees would be exempt from tax rules if they moved to Britain to help build ventilators for the NHS.
No 10 defended the move, saying it was right to secure equipment for the NHS in “extraordinary times” by offering tax breaks for Dyson employees from Singapore at a time the NHS faced running out of them.