The leak of a series of text messages between the British prime minister and billionaire tech boss James Dyson in which Johnson offered tax breaks to Dyson employees for the production of ventilators in the UK has caused a major scandal in Whitehall, with No. 10 maintaining it did nothing wrong.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson took a swing at his detractors over the Dyson text controversy on Friday, claiming that his actions were about looking out for Britain’s best interests and nothing more.
“If you think that there’s anything remotely dodgy or rum 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,” Johnson said, speaking to reporters.
“When you’re facing a pandemic and you’ve got 9,000 ventilators as we had –that’s all we had –and, to the best of our knowledge, putting people on ventilation was the only way to help people who are really in difficulties with COVID, of course it was right to get the best of British manufacturing together as we did with the ventilator challenge,” he added.
Johnson also recalled the recent comments by former Prime Minister Tony Blair defending him. Speaking to Radio 4 earlier this week, Blair said he found it “hard to get worked up about this,” and that “if you’re in the middle of a huge crisis like this, people are going to be using every means they can to make sure they respond to the immediate crisis.”
Johnson maintains that his actions were “completely the right thing to do,” and rejected any suggestion that he shift the way private citizens are able to communicate with him.
On Tuesday, the BBC published text messages dating to March 2020 between Johnson and Sir Dyson, Britain’s richest man, promising to “fix” employees’ tax concerns if they moved to Britain to produce ventilators.
The leak prompted Britain’s Labour opposition to accuse Johnson of using his office to hand public funds “to a billionaire friend” of his in the form of tax breaks, and to brand him for his “sleazy” behaviour. The opposition has called for a “full, transparent, and independent inquiry” in to the matter.
Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office Rachel Reeves suggested that the Johnson-Dyson texts “seem to confirm a growing feeling that if one has access to a telephone number of someone like the prime minister or the chancellor of the exchequer, then they are able to gain a special treatment, potentially even significant financial ones.”
Dyson has echoed Johnson in his public comments, saying he would “do the same again if asked” and suggesting that the ventilator deal actually lost his company money.
On Thursday, UK media reported that Downing Street sources believe Dominic Cummings, former chief advisor to the prime minister, to be behind the leak of the text messages – both of Johnson’s conversations with Dyson and the separately leaked texts of his conversation with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salaman, with the prince reportedly pressuring London to “correct” the Premier League’s “wrong” decision to block a £300 million takeover bid of Newcastle United.
The Johnson-Dyson texts aren’t the only alleged instance of insider dealings between government and business amid the pandemic. Earlier this year, Health Secretary Matt Hancock became the subject of an inquiry after it was discovered that his neighbour won a £30 million contract to supply vials for COVID tests, despite no previous experience with the production of medical supplies. Hancock denies any wrongdoing.