Behind the scenes

‘I will fix it’: Boris Johnson’s text to Sir James Dyson over tax issue

Did an exchange of messages between the prime minister and businessman break lobbying rules?

Texts have emerged between Boris Johnson and Sir James Dyson in which the prime minister assured the British entrepreneur that he would “fix” an issue over the tax status of his employees. 

Dyson, whose technology company is based in Singapore, wrote to the Treasury to seek assurances that his staff would not have to pay more tax if they came to the UK to help make ventilators during the coronavirus pandemic.  

But when he did not receive a response, he raised the issue personally with the prime minister, in texts seen by the BBC

In the messages, which were sent in March 2020 at the height of the pandemic, Dyson told Johnson: “We are ready. But no one seems to want us to proceed.”

Johnson replied: “I will fix it tomo! We need you. It looks fantastic.”

When the businessman sought further reassurance for the tax status of his company, the PM replied: “I am First Lord of the Treasury and you can take it that we are backing you to do what you need.”

The BBC says: “Two weeks later, [the chancellor] Mr Sunak told a group of MPs that the tax status of people who came to the UK to provide specific help during the pandemic would not be affected.”

In a statement to Sky News, Dyson defended his contact with Johnson: “When the prime minister rang me to ask Dyson to urgently build ventilators, of course I said yes.

“We were in the midst of a national emergency and I am hugely proud of Dyson’s response – I would do the same again if asked.

“Neither Weybourne [Dyson’s holding company] nor Dyson received any benefit from the project, indeed commercial projects were delayed, and Dyson voluntarily covered the £20m of development costs.”

While it seems clear that Dyson made an official approach to the Treasury, and later shared the text exchange with government officials, what is “not clear” is whether Johnson reported the exchanges in line with lobbying rules, says the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg

“The principles are clear – contacts are allowed as long as there aren’t conflict of interests, and everything is transparent and out in the open,” she writes. 

But, as the government has learned in the unfolding Greensill scandal: “The practice of the principles that are meant to govern what is permitted has proved troublesome recently, provoking one of the all too regular concerns about lobbying of government.” 

The texts between Johnson and Dyson have emerged as the government finds itself embroiled in a lobbying row after the revelations that the former prime minister David Cameron sent texts to the chancellor and other ministers on behalf of the failed finance firm Greensill Capital.

At prime minister’s questions, Labour leader Keir Starmer accused the government of “Sleaze, sleaze, sleaze,” says the Independent.

“There’s a pattern to this government,” Starmer said. “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.”

A government spokesperson told the BBC: “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.”

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