Prime Minister is helping wealthy businessmen while abandoning Liberty Steel workers, says Labour leader

Boris Johnson has said he makes “absolutely no apology at all for shifting heaven and earth” to secure more ventilators for the NHS during the early days of the pandemic as he came under pressure over contact with billionaire Sir James Dyson.

The Prime Minister was quizzed over leaked text messages sent by the entrepreneur during Prime Minister’s Questions today and Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer suggested people with Mr Johnson’s personal number have been given preferential treatment.

And he said those fearing for their jobs at Liberty Steel would dream of such access.

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Sir Keir told MPs: “Let’s be clear what these texts show. The Prime Minister was lobbied by a wealthy businessman and a close friend for a change in the tax rules, tax rules.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer. Photo: PA

“The Prime Minister responded, ‘I’ll fix it’, then after a discussion with the Chancellor – who everybody seems to be lobbying these days – the Prime Minister texted his friend to say, ‘it’s fixed’. How many other people with the Prime Minister’s personal number has he given preferential treatment to?”

But Mr Johnson responded: “I recall (Sir Keir) at the time saying that we should do everything that we could to get more ventilators, and indeed he congratulated the rollout of the ventilators, he said well done to everybody involved for the ventilator challenge.

“I just remind the House what we were facing in March last year, which was that we had a new virus which was capable of killing people in ways that we didn’t understand, the only way to help them was to intubate them and put them on ventilation, we had 9,000 ventilators in this country, we secured 22,000 as a result of that ventilator challenge.”

He said: “I make absolutely no apology at all for shifting heaven and earth and doing everything I possibly could, as I think any prime minister would in those circumstances, to secure ventilators for the people of this country.”

But Sir Keir said: “At the heart of this scandal are people’s jobs and wasted taxpayers’ money. Take for example the thousands of jobs at Liberty Steel that are on the line… the Prime Minister hasn’t fixed that. In fact he’s done nothing to help steel workers.”

“Is it now quite literally one rule for those who’ve got the Prime Minister’s phone number, another for everybody else?”

Mr Johnson replied: “This is a Government that gets on and delivers for people in distress and delivers on the people’s priorities and yes, of course I am concerned for the families of steel workers up and down the country.”

He added: “We believe in British steel… we intend to use our new freedoms under Brexit to make sure that procurement goes to British companies.”

Sir Keir Starmer went on to claim there is a “pattern to this Government”, telling MPs: “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 will reply.

“Every day there are new allegations about this Conservative Government: dodgy PPE deals; tax breaks for their mates; the Health Secretary owns shares in a company delivering NHS services.

“Sleaze, sleaze, sleaze, and it’s all on his watch.

“With this scandal now firmly centred on him, how on earth does he expect people to believe that he is the person to clean this mess up?”

He added: “He won’t give the steel workers the backing that they need. This shows once again that favours, privileged access, tax breaks for mates, they’re the main currency of this Conservative Government.”

Mr Johnson said: “I’ll tell you why this Government is doing the right thing at the right time because the difference between us and the Labour Party is, I’m afraid, staringly obvious and we get on with taking the tough decisions to protect the people of this country and to take our country forward – uniting and levelling up.”

Mr Johnson defended the Government’s procurement during the pandemic and criminal justice reforms, adding: “Captain Hindsight snipes continually from the sidelines; this Government gets on with delivering on the people’s priorities.”