'I make no apology': Boris Johnson defends texts to Dyson as Starmer accuses him of 'sleaze'

  • Video report by ITV News Political Correspondent Libby Wiener

Boris Johnson has defended his personal correspondence with Sir James Dyson, saying he makes no apology for assuring the billionaire inventor there would be a tax break if he relocated staff to the UK to manufacture ventilators.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer attacked the prime minister at PMQs for telling Sir James in a text message that he would temporarily "fix" tax rules at the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

A defiant Mr Johnson told MPs: "I make absolutely no apology at all for shifting heaven and earth for doing everything I could... to secure ventilators for this country and save lives."

The prime minister said he was forced to act in March last year because Covid-19 was "capable of killing people in ways that we didn't understand, the only way to help them was to incubate them and put them on ventilation".

He said the UK had just 9,000 ventilators at that time, which became "22,000 as a result of that ventilator challenge".

He added: "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."

Sir James had been seeking assurance from the Treasury that his employees - based in Singapore - would not have to pay extra tax if they came to the UK to make ventilators to help with the coronavirus pandemic.

The businessman eventually texted the prime minister directly in March 2020, with Mr Johnson telling him: "I will fix it."

Billionaire Sir James Dyson, pictured here with David Cameron in 2014, requested tax assurances from the PM before sending employees to the UK to build ventilators. Credit: PA

Two weeks later, Chancellor Rishi 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.

Sir Keir took issue with the way Mr Johnson was "lobbied by a wealthy businessman and a close friend for a change in the tax rules" and questioned whether those left out of coronavirus virus support could have received the same kind of help.

"This shows once again that favours, privileged access, tax breaks for mates, they're the main currency of this Conservative government."

He added: "If one of the three million self-employed people who'd been excluded from government support for over a year, and now face bankruptcy - if they'd text the prime minister to ask for a tax break so they could survive, would he change the rules for them one too?"

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Mr Johnson sidestepped the question, insisting the government had done "everything it takes" to protect people through the coronavirus crisis.

The Labour leader refused to back down during the feisty exchanges, claiming there is "sleaze and cronyism at the heart" of government.

"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."

Mr Johnson defended procurement during the pandemic telling the Commons: "Captain Hindsight snipes continually from the sidelines; this Government gets on with delivering on the people's priorities."

On the texts to Sir James, a government spokesman said it was right to take action in "extraordinary times" to ensure the NHS had the equipment it needed.

"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," the spokesman said.

"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."