ir James Dyson is a remarkable man. At a youthful 73, he is the richest person in Britain, with a net worth of about £16bn. For purposes of scale, Bill Gates is worth about 10 times as much, but that’s still not bad for the son of a public schoolmaster in Norfolk with no great wealth behind him. His name is now synonymous with easier vacuum cleaning, and instantly recognisable, like Hoover; what is more, he has the phone number of the prime minister, and is not afraid to use it.
As the general “go to”, “can do” British engineer and designer, when the pandemic struck last year and the government realised they didn’t have enough ventilators to cope with the caseload, they basically panicked. Dyson was asked to help and he readily agreed. He’d been in touch with the authorities about making a new design of ventilator, using Dyson’s existing technologies and component supply chains, and in partnership with JCB and Cambridge science engineers TTP, another British success story sympathetic to Boris Johnson. However, it seems the project ran into the early problem of what would happen if Dyson and his team stayed in the UK for longer than they had planned, away from the company’s operations in Singapore and Malaysia.
If they did so, they would become liable for (higher) UK taxation. With bureaucratic resolution moving slowly, Dyson appealed directly to the prime minister. As “first lord of the Treasury”, as Johnson declared, he would “fix it”. In due course, the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, suspended the usual residency rules. As we learned this week, No 10 and Treasury officials may not have been aware of the details of the lobbying exercise, even though there may have been nothing wrong with it, and, as the prime minister pleads, he was trying to move heaven and earth to get his hands on those ventilators – an effort he once referred to, in poor taste, as “Operation Last Gasp”.