Why we’re talking about . . .

Lobbying: the hotline to the PM

The revelation that Sir James Dyson sent a text to Boris Johnson with his concerns has sparked anger

If you’ve got a tax problem, who are you going to call? If you are a billionaire businessman and Brexiteer, the answer is easy, said Gaby Hinsliff in The Guardian: you call the Prime Minister. Last week, it emerged that Sir James Dyson had texted Boris Johnson in March 2020, seeking assurance that if his overseas staff travelled to Britain to produce ventilators for the NHS, they’d not be double-taxed. “I will fix it tomo!” the PM messaged back; lo and behold, two weeks later, the Treasury announced a waiver for anyone entering Britain to work on the ventilator project. As Dyson has pointed out, this waiver did not directly benefit his firm, which spent £20m researching ventilators before it became clear that they’d not be needed. And arguably, there was nothing wrong with his belief that his staff shouldn’t lose out for doing their bit in the crisis. But here’s the rub: plenty of other individuals and businesses have lost out in the crisis, but they weren’t able to contact the PM on his mobile phone, and get him to fix it. 

“Sleaze, sleaze, sleaze,” was Labour leader Keir Starmer’s verdict. He’d love to tar Johnson with the brush used so effectively against the Tories in the 1990s, said The Mail on Sunday. But if there is a sleaze scandal in the making, this isn’t it. Most fair-minded people will think the PM was simply doing all he could to save lives. Even so, the story is damaging, said The Times, because it feeds into a broader narrative about a government that has too often seemed to offer special privileges to people with friends in the right places. We learnt last week, for instance, that more than £2bn worth of pandemic contracts went to firms with links to senior Tories. That comes on top of the news about David Cameron’s lobbying efforts on behalf of Greensill Capital – and last year’s revelations about the Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick pushing through permission for a £1bn property deal after sitting next to its developer at a Tory fundraiser.

There is nothing wrong with lobbying per se, said The Spectator: trade unions do it all the time; as do environmental groups. But it becomes problematic when it is done informally, said Helen Thomas in the FT. Rules about the proper channels, and the need for officials to be present when ministers discuss government business, exist “to avoid the impression of undue influence as much as anything else”. That a billionaire was able to text the PM directly, and elicit a chummy response, does not instil confidence in the system. We need a full examination of “who has the ear of our leaders, and how those conversations are handled”.

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