Boris Johnson had no reason to block the appointment of Chris Pincher as Tory deputy chief whip, Downing Street has said, despite appearing to acknowledge there had been concerns about him.
Mr Pincher dramatically quit on Thursday after a drunken incident in which he allegedly groped two male guests at a London private members’ club.
The Prime Minister was under pressure to go further and suspend him from the Tory Party, while opposition parties said his position as an MP was untenable.
Downing Street appeared to acknowledge that there had been concerns when he was appointed to the key post of deputy chief whip, with responsibility for discipline over Tory MPs, in February.
However a No 10 spokesman said the Prime Minister had not been made aware of anything that would have prevented the appointment going ahead.
“In the absence of any formal complaints, it was not appropriate to stop an appointment on the basis of unsubstantiated allegations,” the spokesman said.
Meanwhile, the only two women Tory MPs to chair Commons select committees – Caroline Nokes and Karen Bradley – have called for a policy of “zero tolerance” for any such alleged conduct, with any MP facing such allegations having the Conservative whip withdrawn while they are investigated.
In a joint letter to the Prime Minister, they said: “The party and, by extension, the Government are at risk of serious reputational damage by the current approach.
“We urge you to act swiftly to introduce a code of conduct for all Conservative members of Parliament which is clear in terms of the expectations of behaviour and which can be applied in a fair, independent manner so as to avoid any suspicion of bias.”
Downing Street confirmed there had been an exchange of messages between Mr Johnson and Mr Pincher on Thursday evening but declined to say whether it was before or after Mr Pincher submitted his resignation.
A No 10 spokesman said: “The Prime Minister thinks it was right for him to have resigned and he has accepted his resignation.
“He believes that the behaviour was unacceptable, which is why he’s accepted the resignation.”
Mr Johnson was under pressure to explain why he gave Mr Pincher such a sensitive post amid reports that he had been advised not to do so.
The Tamworth MP was brought in alongside chief whip Chris Heaton-Harris – another trusted ally – to shore up support for the Prime Minister amid growing unrest among Tory MPs over the disclosures about lockdown parties in Downing Street.
In 2017 Mr Pincher quit the whips office after a complaint over an unwanted pass at the former Olympic rower and Conservative candidate Alex Story.
However he was reinstated two months later as a senior whip by Theresa May after having referred himself to both the police and the Conservative Party complaints procedure.
Asked whether Mr Johnson had been warned about his latest appointment, following spells at the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Housing, the No 10 spokesman said: “He was not aware of any specific allegations.”
The latest disclosures come after the Conservative Party has been hit by a series of scandals relating to sexual misconduct.
In May, Neil Parish quit as MP for Tiverton and Honiton after admitting viewing pornography in the Commons chamber, while the previous month Wakefield MP Imran Ahmad Khan was jailed for 18 months for sexually assaulting a 15-year-old boy.
In both cases the Conservatives lost the ensuing by elections.
A third unnamed Conservative MP has been told by the whips to stay away from Parliament after he was arrested on suspicion of rape and other offences.
Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner said Mr Pincher should have the whip suspended while a full investigation is carried out.
“Boris Johnson and the Conservatives’ failure to act just shows the rot that has set in at the heart of this Government,” she said.
“If this Prime Minister had an ounce of decency, he would have already suspended the Tory Whip.”
Liberal Democrat chief whip Wendy Chamberlain also said Mr Pincher should have the whip withdrawn pending a full investigation.
“Given the seriousness of these allegations, it’s difficult to see how Chris Pincher can continue as an MP,” she said.
“Boris Johnson also has serious questions to answer over why he appointed Chris Pincher to a role with important safeguarding responsibilities despite concerns about him having already been raised.”
In his resignation letter to the Prime Minister, Mr Pincher apologised for his behaviour, saying it had been “the honour of my life” to have served in the Government.
“Last night I drank far too much. I’ve embarrassed myself and other people which is the last thing I want to do and for that I apologise to you and to those concerned,” he said.
The alleged incident reportedly took place in the Carlton Club – the original home of the Conservative Party – in London’s Piccadilly.
Earlier Welsh Secretary Simon Hart said Mr Heaton-Harris and other senior party figures would be considering what further action Mr Pincher should face.
“I think it is entirely right that the chief whip and others take a view today about what is the appropriate course of action,” he told Sky News.
However it is understood the whips office believes it has no powers to carry out any inquiry and that the alleged victims should go to the “appropriate authorities” if they want any further investigation.
Scotland Yard said it had not received any reports of an incident at the club.