Dominic Cummings lashed out against Downing Street with a series of allegations, ITV News Political Correspondent Carl Dinnen reports
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has said Boris Johnson is leading a "government by WhatsApp" after Downing Street announced an internal inquiry into the leak of private text messages between the PM and Sir James Dyson.
According to reports, Downing Street sources are pointing the finger Mr Johnson's former aide Dominic Cummings, who quit as the Prime Minister’s senior adviser last year following a behind-the-scenes power struggle in No 10.
The Times, Daily Telegraph and Sun all reported comments from an insider naming Mr Cummings as the source of the leak of the texts between Mr Johnson and billionaire Sir James regarding the tax status of his employees.
"Dominic is engaged in systematic leaking," a source told The Times. "We are disappointed about that.
ITV News Political Editor Robert Peston says Cummings’ blog represents a ‘full-scale political crisis’ for the prime minister
"We are concerned about messages from private WhatsApp groups which have very limited circulation."
When asked about the reports, Sir Keir criticised the "quarrelling at the centre of Government".
"Now we’re getting arguments and quarrelling at the centre of Government about who is leaking information about privileged access," he told reporters during a campaign visit to Hartlepool.
"Boris Johnson is desperate to try to put this at arm’s length, but it’s obvious that he can’t," he said. "This is government by WhatsApp."
The leak of the texts to Sir James, in which Mr Johnson promised the entrepreneur he would “fix” a tax issue for Dyson staff working to develop ventilators at the height of the coronavirus crisis last year, was not the first time the Prime Minister’s messages have been made public.
Mr Johnson was sent a text message by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as a bid to buy Newcastle United ran into difficulties last June.
Sir Keir accused Mr Johnson's government of "sleaze" and referred to former Prime Minister David Cameron's lobbying of ministers on behalf of failed finance firm Greensill Capital and questions over 'cronyism' after it was revealed Health Secretary Matt Hancock had shares in a company securing NHS contracts.
He said: "They’re all at it, whether it’s access to the prime minister, whether it’s the former prime minister accessing ministers and officials, whether it’s the health secretary with shares in companies that contracts with the NHS, the list just goes and grows and grows.
"And I’m afraid this sleaze is back and it’s bigger than it was before."
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Sir Keir added: "Everyone [in Hartlepool] is talking about jobs, jobs, jobs and what we’re getting from the government day after day is sleaze, sleaze, sleaze.
"This is about access for mates, privileged access, there are steel workers here in Hartlepool who would love to have been able to directly access the prime minister or ministers, their jobs are on the line.
"This is about privileged access for those that have got the contact details of the prime minister and senior ministers.
"And this ‘one rule for them, one rule for everybody else’ I think deeply offends that sense of unfairness, particularly as we come out of a pandemic."
'If you think there's anything remotely dodgy... you're out of your mind'
The PM, when asked if he would publish his communications with James Dyson, said: “Indeed, I think that’s happening today.”
He added: “But let me tell you, if you think that there’s anything remotely dodgy, or rum, or weird, or sleazy about trying to secure more ventilators at a time of a national pandemic, and doing everything in your power to do that then I think you’re out of your mind.
“I think it was actually Tony Blair, the former leader of the Labour Party, who said that that any prime minister would have done the same.”
Repeatedly quizzed about the reports during a Westminster briefing, a No 10 spokesman told reporters: “We have instructed the Cabinet Office to look into the Dyson leak.
“I am not going to comment on speculation and, of course, it is for the Cabinet Office to take that work forward, I am not going to pre-empt it.”
Mr Cummings has not responded to the accusations.
The former Vote Leave mastermind worked closely with Mr Johnson on the Brexit campaign and was a major figure in Downing Street after the Prime Minister took office.
The Prime Minister stood by him after Mr Cummings found himself in the eye of a media storm after driving his family to County Durham during the coronavirus lockdown.
But Mr Cummings was subsequently ousted from No 10 amid the fallout from an internal power struggle with the Prime Minister’s fiancee, Carrie Symonds.
No 10 had initially said there would not be a probe into how the exchange with Sir James was made public, but a change of course was announced on Thursday as it said an internal inquiry will be led by the Cabinet Office.
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Sir James, who has changed his main address in business filings to the UK from Singapore, wrote to the Treasury requesting that his staff would not have to pay additional tax if they came to the UK to work on the ventilator project.
But when he failed to receive a reply, Sir James reportedly 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, to which 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."
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.
Downing Street has said it will publish correspondence between Mr Johnson and Sir James "shortly", after the Prime Minister told the Commons he was "happy to share all the details" of the exchanges.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: "The Prime Minister said in the House he’s happy to share all the details with the House, as he shared them with his officials.
"That’s what we’re working on, we’re pulling together that information, it will be published shortly."
Meanwhile, the spokesman did not deny reports that Cabinet Secretary Simon Case advised Mr Johnson to change his phone number over concerns about the ease with which lobbyists and business leaders were able to contact him.
The spokesman told Westminster reporters: "We don’t get into details of the advice provided between a Cabinet Secretary and a Prime Minister, and so I’m not going to do that in this instance."