Text messages published by the BBC between the prime minister and the entrepreneur, suggest that Sir James, who announced his firm would relocate to Singapore in 2019, was unable to get the assurances he was seeking from the Treasury.
The exchanges were said to have to taken place in March 2020 — at the onset of the coronavirus crisis— when ministers were appealing to firms to supply ventilators, but it is not clear whether Mr Johnson disclosed the correspondence with officials.
Sir James wrote to the Treasury asking for an assurance that his staff would not have to pay additional tax if they came to the UK to work on the ventilator project under the Statutory Residence Test (SRT).
However, when he failed to receive a reply, the BBC reported he took up the matter with the prime minister, telling him in a text message that the firm was ready, but “sadly” it seemed no-one wanted them to proceed.
“I will fix it tomo! We need you. It looks fantastic,” Mr Johnson replied, before texting him again, saying: “[Chancellor] Rishi [Sunak] says it is fixed!! We need you here.”
When Sir James then sought a further assurance, Mr Johnson replied: “James, I am First Lord of the Treasury and you can take it that we are backing you to do what you need.”
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.
The government said it was right to secure equipment for the NHS in “extraordinary times” while Sir James said it was “absurd to suggest that his firm was doing anything other than seeking to comply with Treasury rules”.
Dyson began developing a ventilator device to treat those with severe cases of Covid-19 in response to ministers’ appeals, but did not end up supplying Britain after the government said services were not required in April. Sir James said it cost the company £20 million.
However, Labour described the revelations as “jaw-dropping” as links between ministers, officials and businesses come under intense scrutiny amid the Greensill Capital lobbying scandal and former prime minister David Cameron’s text messages to senior ministers in government on the company’s behalf.
A party spokesperson claimed Mr Johnson was now “front and centre of the biggest lobbying scandal in a generation”, as they called on No 10 to agree to a “full, transparent inquiry into lobbying”.
“The prime minister appears to have used the power of his office to personally hand public money to a billionaire friend in the form of tax breaks,” they added. “If true, it is clearer than ever there is one rule for the Conservatives and their friends, another for everyone else.
Defending the action, a government spokesperson said it was right to take action in “extraordinary times” to ensure the health service had the equipment it needed, adding: “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.”
Sir James said he was “hugely proud” of his company’s response in “the midst of a national emergency”, and that he would “do the same again if asked”.
He told the BBC: “When the prime minister rang me to ask Dyson to urgently build ventilators, of course I said yes.
“Our ventilator cost Dyson £20 million, freely given to the national cause, and it is absurd to suggest that the urgent correspondence was anything other than seeking compliance with rules, as 450 Dyson people - in UK and Singapore - worked around the clock, seven days a week to build potentially life-saving equipment at a time of dire need.
“Mercifully, they were not required as medical understanding of the virus evolved. Neither Weybourne (Dyson’s holding company) nor Dyson received any benefit from the project; indeed commercial projects were delayed, and Dyson voluntarily covered the £20 million of development costs.”
“Not one penny was claimed from any government, in any jurisdiction, in relation to Covid-19”.