Rebel Tories threaten to release recording in blackmail row as partygate email uncovered

20 January 2022, 13:22 | Updated: 24 January 2022, 07:47

By Patrick Grafton-Green

Rebel Tory MPs are considering publishing proof they have been blackmailed and intimidated by the Boris Johnson's supporters as efforts to oust the PM continue.

The rebels claim government whips have threatened to withdraw funding from their constituencies and that they have been smeared by unsubstantiated claims about their personal lives in the press.

The claims have been denied by No 10 and Mr Johnson says he's seen no evidence politicians have been unfairly targeted.

Backbenchers could go as far as releasing secret recordings and text messages, including threats to release embarrassing media stories.

Yesterday a senior Tory made claims of intimidation, as the Prime Minister managed to buy time for his leadership amid the fallout from the partygate scandal.

Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng told LBC this morning: "I’ve been an MP for 12 years, I’ve never heard anything like that.

"Whips try and persuade MPs to support the government. There are ways that they do that but I’ve never heard any suggestion that people were withholding funds.

"Anyone who knows anything about the process knows they can’t do that… they don’t have it in their power to withhold funds or grant funds to local communities."

He said no-one had ever tried to bully him, "not once", joking that generally "whips were a lot shorter than I was."

"I’m not sure how the physical intimidation, or other forms of intimidation would have been effective."

LBC reported yesterday how members of the government threatened to withhold funding for schools in deprived constituencies unless Tory MPs voted against extending free school meals.

Meanwhile Sue Gray, the civil servant leading the investigation into Downing Street parties, is said to have found an email that allegedly confirms concerns were raised over a lockdown garden drinks event before it took place.

The message is said to have been sent by a senior Number 10 official after an invitation to drinks on May 15, 2020 was circulated to Downing Street staff.

Mr Johnson said he was focused on "the people's priorities" after William Wragg said MPs should contact police over any attempts to blackmail them because of their support for a no-confidence motion in Mr Johnson.

Mr Wragg, who chairs the Commons Public Administration Committee, said he had reports of "members of staff at 10 Downing Street, special advisers, government ministers and others encouraging the publication of stories in the press seeking to embarrass those they who suspect of lacking confidence in the Prime Minister".

But former Tory minister Rob Wilson told LBC this morning: "It does appear that William Wragg doesn’t understand the whip’s office either if he wants their activities reported to the police.

"Much of the job of a whip is… about collecting information, running party and House of Commons business and crucially it's a support to distressed MPs and giving out sound advice."

Speaking on Thursday, Mr Johnson told LBC's reporter Tom Seymour: "It's literally the first I've heard of it today, I've seen no evidence of that whatsoever.

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"But I just want to repeat what we're doing is - and I know that people have been rightly thinking about those issues - but I'm focused today 100% on what I think are the priorities of the people."

No 10 insisted it was "not aware" of evidence to support the "clearly serious allegations".

"The intimidation of a Member of Parliament is a serious matter. Reports of which I am aware would seem to constitute blackmail," Mr Wragg said at the start of a committee hearing.

"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 Metropolitan Police."

He also said the conduct of government whips threatening to withdraw public funding from rebel MPs' constituencies may have breached the ministerial code.

Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner has called for an investigation, describing the allegations as "lower than a snakes belly" and adding she was "absolutely disgusted".

Explaining she has known Mr Wragg a long time, she told LBC: "He's not someone who jumps up quickly like that, he's very loyal to his party, he's very loyal to the Conservative brand and for him to say what's he's said in that public arena shows how upset and angry he is."

"This isn't just about the bullying and the blackmail, but it's the misuse of public money, it's literally saying that they are going to starve funding for vital resources for constituents in their constituencies... taxpayers money, it's disgusting," she said.

She added: "We're elected to represent our constituents and democracy falls down if we start getting these bullying, blackmail and threatening behaviours, it cannot be allowed to continue."

She urged Conservative MPs to get rid Mr Johnson, saying: "He's lost the confidence of the British public with his actions, he's tried to lie his way out of it and now he obviously is trying to blackmail and bully his MPs... it's completely wild stuff."

A No 10 spokesman 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."

In Holyrood today Nicola Sturgeon called for an inquiry to be launched, saying: "These are gravely serious allegations - intimidation, blackmail and using public money to do it.

"I would suggest that these accusations need to be fully and, crucially, independently investigated. “With everyday right now, Boris Johnson is tarnishing the office of Prime Minister and I think if he has concerns for the interests of the country, he will go."

While Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross - who was one of the first MPs to publicly call for the Prime Minister to resign - told LBC that MPs who had experienced intimidation should write to the Speaker, though stressed he had not been on the receiving end of such actions.

The Met Police declined to comment.

In a further blow for the Prime Minister, Downing Street is said to be concerned Sue Gray's investigation into No 10 parties has come across damaging evidence, and is now doubtful the report will be able to "clear" Mr Johnson.

Mr Wragg is one of a handful of Tory MPs to have publicly said they have submitted a letter to the chairman of the backbench 1922 Committee Sir Graham Brady calling for a no-confidence vote.

A total of 54 letters need to be submitted in order for a vote to be triggered.

Mr Johnson has so far managed to fend off the plot to oust him despite a torrid day on Wednesday with the surprise defection of Red Wall MP Christian Wakeford and senior Tory David Davis openly calling for him to quit during Prime Minister's Questions.

MPs are now set to wait for the findings of Ms Gray's long-awaited report to decide whether they will send letters. The report is expected to be published next week.

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Speaking to Nick Ferrari at breakfast earlier today, Health Secretary Sajid Javid said he was "surprised" when Mr Davis confronted Mr Johnson, telling him: "In the name of God, go."

Mr Javid told LBC: "I was surprised. I’m not going to sit here and pretend I was expecting it. It's up to him, of course, what he thinks. I think that the fact the Prime Minister has come to parliament, he's apologised, he's been right to do that because he's recognised rightly that many people, millions of people across the country - your listeners, have been pained by what they've seen. I have. 

"He's also said there's this investigation going on that will establish the facts and once that investigation is complete he will come back to parliament and respond to it and submit himself to scrutiny."

Mr Davis said later in an interview the PM will have to be dragged "kicking and screaming" from office.