Conservative ministers and whips began spreading rumours about Christian Wakeford’s personal life minutes after the MP defected to Labour, it has been alleged amid growing concerns over dirty tactics in politics.
The Guardian has been told that senior members of the government spread the rumours in parliament after the MP for Bury South crossed the floor on Wednesday.
On Thursday, the senior Tory MP William Wragg urged MPs to report government ministers, whips and advisers to the Speaker – and even the Metropolitan police – for what he claimed was attempted blackmail of some colleagues suspected of opposing Boris Johnson. Johnson said he had “seen no evidence” of such threats.
A Labour source said the party had prepared Wakeford before his defection for the possibility of the Tories or hostile media trying to dig around in his private life.
Asked about the allegation that there was an attempt to smear Wakeford, a government source said: “It would be unacceptable. The chief whip [Mark Spencer] wouldn’t condone that behaviour at all. It’s not a practice that would be employed at all. It’s true there was shock and disappointment at a defection but that doesn’t ever cross into smearing other people.”
Since defecting, Wakeford has also alleged that party whips told him he would lose funding for a new high school in his constituency if he did not vote with the government.
There were also reports on Thursday that rebel Tory MPs were considering releasing details of text messages and a recording of their dealings with the party’s whips.
Following the spotlight on the tactics of the whips, Kwasi Kwarteng, the business secretary, said allegations of blackmail by government whips against Tory rebels needed to be investigated – but were unlikely to be true.
Speaking to Sky News, Kwarteng said: “Any form of blackmail and intimidation of that kind simply has no place in British politics.” He added: “We need to get to the bottom of the matter. I’d find it very unlikely that these allegations are true.”
But one Tory MP said: “Blackmail is not just about money for constituencies, it’s tittle tattle, personal things, affairs or who’s been to a lockdown party. At the far end it’s corruption and misconduct in a public office – on the other it’s a breach of the ministerial code. Either way it’s a resignation issue.
“The culture comes from the top – it’s learned, bullying behaviour. Unless you stand up to bullies, they carry on.”
Another MP from the 2019 intake also stepped forward anonymously to say they felt they had been threatened and bullied when they rebelled in a vote last spring. They said that threats about ministerial careers were perfectly normal but that they were told “it would be a shame” if their constituency did not get the towns’ funding it had asked for.
“I complained to another MP, they said that’s outrageous – the whips have no such powers, it’s just one of their tactics.”
The MP said they did not think Johnson was to blame and that it was not widely known about, but a tactic employed by some individual whips, adding: “They’re empty threats, but it is unacceptable – it’s a form of bullying.”