Labour chair of the key public accounts committee Meg Hillier has said the “sofa government” model criticised during the New Labour years has been replaced by a “WhatsApp government” in light of the latest Tory cronyism story.
Text messages between Boris Johnson and James Dyson have revealed that the Prime Minister promised the British billionaire businessman he would “fix” his concern over employees paying extra tax to make ventilators.
Hillier told Times Radio: “I think it’s pretty shocking, actually. I mean it’s legitimate for any business to lobby government about these issues, but there are proper channels… and this is something about the tax system, which just cannot be done text to text.
“We’ve seen people have criticised in the past “sofa government” for being too informal. Well, that seems to have been replaced with “WhatsApp government”. And it’s extraordinary to me that the Prime Minister of the day has got time to personally WhatsApp certain people, but not others.
“I think that’s that privileged access point is really a concern as well. Everyone should have the same access, and the government was having to make fast decisions and was being lobbied by everybody, MPs, lots of organisations, that’s fair enough.
“But it should not be down to the Prime Minister making these simple guarantees himself without going through proper processes. And they’ve just got to to keep much better records. It is shocking that the Prime Minister is now embroiled in this lobbying stuff.”
Dyson, who recently moved his firm’s headquarters from the UK to Singapore, was asking the government not to change the tax status of his staff, after being asked to help increase the number of ventilators in the country amid Covid.
Replying to a text from Dyson, Johnson said: “I will fix it tomo! We need you. It looks fantastic”. He followed up with: “Rishi says it is fixed!! We need you here”. Dyson promised to “give the ventilator my all”.
The businessman then messaged Johnson again to say Rishi Sunak had “fixed” one issue for the firm, but not his concern over work days. He said the Chancellor had “freed up your ability to be in the UK but not to work there”.
The Prime Minister replied: “James I am first lord of the treasury and you can take it that we are backing you to do what you need”. Dyson ultimately developed a new ventilator but the UK said it was no longer required.
Dyson was criticised by some, including Labour, when it was reported in January 2019 that the pro-Brexit billionaire would be moving the headquarters of his vacuum cleaner and hair dryer technology company to Singapore.
Responding to the texts, a government spokeswoman told the BBC: “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.
“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.”
Dyson said: “Our ventilator cost Dyson £20m, freely given to the national cause, and it is absurd to suggest that the urgent correspondence was anything other than seeking compliance with rules”.
He added that “450 Dyson people – in the UK and Singapore – worked around the clock, seven days a week, to build potentially life-saving equipment at a time of dire need”.
But Labour’s Lucy Powell said: “It seems that this country only works for people who are rich enough and, frankly, donors to the Tory party, who have got the personal phone numbers of the Chancellor or the Prime Minister.”