Labour’s criticism falls apart if anyone can text the PM

‘You’re a nurse, you say, and you want a pay rise?’
chief political commentator

Keir Starmer tried to be sternly disapproving when he asked Boris Johnson at last week’s Prime Minister’s Questions about his text exchange with Sir James Dyson. A screenshot of these texts had been leaked, which, the Labour leader said, showed the prime minister being “lobbied by a wealthy businessman and close friend for a change in the tax rules”.

Starmer’s question was: “How many other people with the prime minister’s personal number has he given preferential treatment to?”

Now it turns out that not only does Sir James hotly deny being a “friend” of Johnson’s – a defamatory allegation in some circles – but that everybody else could have had the prime minister’s personal number if they were prepared to do a bit of light googling.

Johnson has had the same number since he was higher education spokesperson on David Cameron’s front bench in 2006, when a press release with his contact details on it was issued by Politeia, the free-market think tank, which was available on its website until this morning.

So when Starmer asked, rhetorically – and it was quite a good line at the time – if a nurse had had the prime minister’s phone number, “would they get the pay rise that they so obviously deserve?” the answer was that they could have asked. The prime minister was so in touch with the British people that any one of them could have rung or texted to demand whatever they wanted.

Starmer denounced Johnson last week: “Is it now quite literally one rule for those who have the prime minister’s phone number and another for everybody else?” It was a ringing line, but now it has been answered by a recorded announcement: “This person’s phone is switched off. Please try later or send a text.” It turns out that it was quite literally the same rule for everybody.

No doubt ‘the return of Tory sleaze’ will be an effective Labour attack, but our open-access prime minister has, without meaning to, destroyed one of the devices that would otherwise have been deployed endlessly

Numbergate is embarrassing for Johnson, but not serious. The worst thing about it for him, I suspect, is that he is probably attached to the number, doesn’t want it replaced by some unfeeling combination of random digits, and really doesn’t want the bother of changing it.

But for Starmer, it is a political setback. The whole Dyson story was a non-starter, and this just makes it seem sillier. Sir James had the prime minister’s number not because he was a crony but because Johnson had phoned him. As Britain’s “go-to engineer”, as my colleague Sean O’Grady called him, the vacuum innovator was an obvious person to ask to help build the ventilators that, at that stage of the pandemic, we thought we needed.

All the outrage about “fixing” a tax break for Sir James’s employees turned out to be misplaced too. It was something the Treasury was doing for any staff of any company helping out during the emergency for a couple of months last year – and quite right too. It seems a bit like me texting the CEO of BT because I can’t make my home wifi network connect to the printer, but as Johnson had contacted Sir James in the first place, chasing him up about the tax complications was not unreasonable.

Of course, there are legitimate questions to be asked about emergency procurement during the early stages of the coronavirus – although I suspect that public opinion will be relaxed about people using connections if it produced results. There are more awkward questions to be asked about former prime ministers lobbying their former colleagues, but as Rishi Sunak said no to Cameron it is hard for Starmer to claim that the Greensill saga is evidence of preferential treatment.

No doubt “the return of Tory sleaze” will be an effective Labour attack over time, but our open-access prime minister has, without meaning to, destroyed one of the devices that would otherwise have been deployed endlessly. “Nurses don’t have the prime minister’s personal phone number” was a line that was going to feature in every shadow minister’s speech for ever. It is a line that has now been cut.