Tory whips accused of intimidating MPs who oppose Boris Johnson

·6 min read

PM optimistic he can overcome a confidence vote as whipping alleged to veer into blackmail


Tory whips were accused on Thursday of using dirty tactics to intimidate rebels as Boris Johnson was said to be increasingly convinced he could see off a vote of no confidence.

Though allies of Johnson believe a vote is almost inevitable after the inquiry into Downing Street parties is published next week, one cabinet minister said on Thursday there were now significant doubts among the rebels about whether they could defeat the prime minister.

The Guardian has been told of at least five MPs who have expressed concerns about the government threatening funding for their constituency or encouraging damaging stories to be published in newspapers.

MPs said the tactic had been used not only during the so-called partygate scandal, but ahead of the votes on Uighur genocide, cutting international aid, free school meals and the rise in national insurance. The Times reported that rebels were considering releasing texts or recordings of their conversations with whips to show their tactics.

A No 10 spokesperson said: “We are not aware of any evidence to support what are clearly serious allegations. If there is any evidence to support these claims we would look at it very carefully.” Johnson said he had “seen no evidence” of those threats.

The row over whipping tactics came amid other developments as:

  • A significant email from a senior official warning Martin Reynolds not to hold the summer party on 20 May has now been obtained by the inquiry by Sue Gray.

  • Anger among Johnson critics escalated after sources briefed that rebels were losing their nerve. MPs denied that letters of no confidence had been withdrawn, calling it spin by Number 10.

  • Leading Brexiter Steve Baker said it looked like “checkmate” for the prime minister.

As allies of Johnson claimed the prime minister was being given a reprieve before the Gray report, senior Tory William Wragg, who chairs a government scrutiny committee, claimed there was attempted blackmail against some colleagues involving public money.

He urged MPs to report government ministers, whips and advisers to the Speaker – and even the police.

Two of the MPs, the Tory defector Christian Wakeford and Andrew Bridgen, another Johnson critic, spoke publicly on Thursday about the tactics they claim had been deployed against them.

Wakeford backed up the claims by Wragg that threats involving public money were made by the whips.

“I was threatened that I would not get a school for Radcliffe if I did not vote in one particular way,” he said. “This is a town that has not had a high school for the best part of 10 years.

“How would you feel when they hold back the regeneration of a town for a vote. It didn’t sit comfortably. That was the start of me questioning my place, where I was and ultimately to where I am now.”

Wragg, who chairs the public administration and constitutional affairs committee (PACAC), which looks into the work of government and the civil service, said it would breach the ministerial code “in threatening to withdraw investment from members of parliaments’ constituencies which are funded from the public purse”.

He said encouraging the publication of stories in newspapers would also be a breach. “The intimidation of a member of parliament is a serious matter,” he added. “Moreover, the reports of which I’m aware would seem to constitute blackmail.

“As such it would be my general advice to colleagues to report these matters to the Speaker of the House of Commons and the commissioner of the Metropolitan police.”

Bridgen, a Conservative backbencher who was among the first MPs to call for Johnson to go, said he believed a story in the Times on Monday detailing his links to a Ghana-based timber company had been inspired by No 10.

“Not only am I confident that happened, but so are all my colleagues,” Bridgen, MP for North West Leicestershire since 2010, told the Guardian. “One of them told me, ‘It’s not even subtle nowadays.’”

One former minister said he was incensed by the tactic of threatening to cut funding to seats. “It has unusually high leverage with our newer colleagues. We have young, new members with marginal seats in poor areas.

Related: It’s not just Johnson: the whole culture that cheered him on needs booting out | Aditya Chakrabortty

“That’s precisely the area where the seat is dependent on allocations of money and the levelling up regime. The scope for this kind of threat is much more than it would have been. If you use this tactic all the red wall are susceptible to it.”

The Speaker, Lindsay Hoyle, said allegations about potentially criminal offences would be a matter for the police.

Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader, said the alleged threats to withdraw investment to force support for Johnson were “disgusting” and Ed Davey, the Lib Dem leader, said Johnson was “now in full scorched earth mode”.

One cabinet minister said Johnson was increasingly confident that he could “probably win” in a vote of no confidence and called the whipping row “a sideshow”.

He said colleagues were beginning to think it was “electoral suicide” to depose Johnson. “When you start to put it to people that the prime minister who got us this huge majority might have to go over cheese and wine – well it starts to look ridiculous.”

But other MPs said Johnson was still in deep peril. “There are a lot of people who do not like these kinds of threats; they don’t like bullies,” one MP said. Another MP opposing Johnson denied that letters of no confidence had been withdrawn after Wakeford defected to Labour.

“These briefings of withdrawals are pure invention from No 10,” one said. “Wakeford may have stayed some people’s hands yesterday but this isn’t going into reverse.”

Johnson is understood to be keen for Gray’s report to be published by Tuesday, to allow him to make a statement before facing another PMQs on Wednesday.

A significant email from a senior official warning Martin Reynolds not to hold the summer party on 20 May has now been obtained by Gray, first reported by ITV.

Cabinet Office sources said she had already been given the authority to search email records – which are retained even from departing officials. A Whitehall source said Gray is nearing the end of her inquiry and publication next week was very likely.

Baker, a key Westminster figure who often led rebellions including on Brexit and Covid, said he would not be organising against the prime minister but said he should resign if he broke the law or misled parliament.

“I’m appalled we’ve reached this position,” he told the BBC’s Political Thinking podcast.

“At the moment I’m afraid it does look like checkmate but whether he can save himself, we’ll see … I’m very clear that if he’s broken the law or lied at the dispatch box, then he must go. But one thing I would say I’m not going to organise against Boris Johnson, my heart wouldn’t be in it.”

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