UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Thursday denied new allegations that his aides had tried to “blackmail” and threaten Conservative rebels, in a potentially criminal twist to Downing Street’s “partygate” scandal.
Senior Tory William Wragg disclosed the alleged intimidation campaign as Downing Street battles to shore up Johnson against calls from within the party for his resignation.
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“The intimidation of a member of parliament is a serious matter. Reports of which I am aware would seem to constitute blackmail,” said Wragg, one of seven Tory MPs who have publicly called for a party confidence vote.
Addressing MPs, Wragg said any affected members should report it the police and to the Speaker’s office in the House of Commons.
Speaker Lindsay Hoyle, addressing the chamber in sombre tones, said any such campaign would amount to “contempt” of parliament, which is a criminal offence.
But Johnson told reporters: “I’ve seen no evidence, heard no evidence, to support any of those allegations.
“What I am focused on is what we’re doing to deal with the number one priority of the British people, which is coming through Covid,” he said on a visit to a medical clinic in southwest England.
Johnson refused to confirm his aides’ assertion that he would fight any no-confidence vote, nor to comment further on the dramatic defection of Conservative MP Christian Wakeford to the Labour party on Wednesday.
– ‘Narcissistic rabble’ –
The alleged intimidation campaign includes threats to withdraw funding from rebels’ constituencies, and to leak damaging stories to the press.
Wakeford said he had been told his seat in northwest England could lose a school if he did not fall into line.
Prior to Wragg’s explosive intervention, Johnson allies had been talking up the prime minister’s chances of survival, after Wakeford’s cross-party switch focused Tory minds on the threat from a resurgent Labour opposition.
One anti-Johnson plot by younger Tory MPs, livid at breaches of lockdowns by partying Downing Street staff, appeared to be fizzling out despite one senior backbencher telling him to his face to quit, “in the name of God”.
“The prime minister is probably thanking Christian for what he did because it’s made a lot of people think again, think twice,” Tory MP Andrew Percy told BBC radio.
“It’s kind of made people a bit more relaxed, it’s calmed nerves,” he said.
“I think people have recognised that actually this constant navel-gazing and internal debating is only to the advantage of our political opponents.”
Before Wakeford’s defection, the plotters appeared confident that they were close to the 54 letters needed to force a no-confidence vote in Johnson by Conservative MPs.
But the secretive process remained on hold, with some rebels even withdrawing their letters in response to Wakeford joining Labour, according to reports.
The rightwing Daily Mail newspaper said that against a backdrop of crisis at home and abroad, it was no time to be changing leaders.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is “poised to start a war” in Ukraine, and UK inflation is soaring, it said in a front-page editorial.
“Yet a narcissistic rabble of Tory MPs are trying to topple (a) PM who’s leading us out of Covid. In the name of God, grow up!”
– Awaiting internal inquiry –
Critics accuse Johnson of lying to parliament about what he knew and when, with regard to boozy parties held in Downing Street in apparent breach of his own government’s Covid rules over the past two years.
While apologising for the parties, Johnson denies misleading the country, and insists that all sides should await the findings of an internal inquiry by senior civil servant Sue Gray.
On Wednesday, he indicated in parliament that Gray’s findings could come out next week, as he defiantly vowed to fight on as leader to the next general election due in 2024.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid agreed that any minister, “from the prime minister down”, would have to resign if found to have broken the law and the government’s ministerial code.
But Javid stressed that he believed Johnson was secure in his job.
Artist Tracey Emin meanwhile said she wanted a red neon “More Passion” sign she designed and which hangs in Downing Street to be removed because of the scandal.
“I want it taken down and this government, I will tell you what they need, they need compassion. That’s what they need, not passion. They don’t need more party atmosphere,” she told BBC radio.