Boris Johnson faces threat of legal action over blackmail claims

PM’s Partygate woes deepen as photograph of drinks event emerges

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
Friday 21 January 2022 19:17
Rory Stewart says it's 'very disturbing' that Boris Johnson was ever elected

Boris Johnson is facing the threat of legal action over the alleged intimidation of Tory MPs who are demanding his head over the Partygate scandal.

Lawyers from the Good Law Project have sent the prime minister a letter before action warning that alleged threats to withhold government funding from rebel MPs’ constituencies were an “unlawful misuse of ministerial powers” which may amount to misconduct in public office.

The move came as Downing Street refused to investigate claims from senior Tory William Wragg that MPs have been subjected to blackmail by whips, despite a cabinet minister’s call for them to “get to the bottom of it”.

Meanwhile the prime minister’s woes deepened as it emerged there is photographic evidence of Downing Street staff drinking late into the night before the funeral of the Duke of Edinburgh in April 2021.

The parties for No 10’s departing head of communications and a Downing Street photographer were already public knowledge and have been the subject of an apology.

But Whitehall mandarin Sue Gray may want to consider the photograph, as well as text messages seen by The Daily Telegraph, before completing her report into allegedly lockdown-busting drinks events at No 10, expected early next week.

The new evidence allegedly indicates that drinking and loud music continued to around 1am, with staff eating pizza in the No 10 garden, spilling wine on an office printer and trying out a children’s slide belonging to Mr Johnson’s son Wilf.

Ahead of the release of the make-or-break report, Mr Johnson faces a high-pressure weekend of calls from his country residence Chequers to MPs believed to be preparing to submit letters expressing no confidence in his leadership.

If Ms Gray’s findings point to the PM having lied to parliament, the threshold of 54 letters is expected to be swiftly reached, triggering a vote on Johnson’s leadership as early as next week.

It is understood that the prime minister will receive her findings no more than 24 hours before the release of the report and is not likely to be given an opportunity to respond directly to Ms Gray ahead of publication.

And it emerged on Friday that the senior civil servant, rather than Johnson, will have the final say over how much of her report is published, greatly diminishing the prime minister’s ability to control its reception.

It had been thought that Mr Johnson would have the power to keep sensitive details away from the public eye by “redacting” the document, as he did with the report into bullying allegations against Priti Patel.

But a Downing Street spokesperson said that decisions on which parts of the report will be made public were “a matter for Sue Gray and her team”.

The spokesperson also confirmed that no inquiry was being launched by Downing Street into allegations of bullying of MPs by whips, saying only that evidence would be looked at “if it came forward”.

Business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said threats to withhold government funding were “completely unacceptable” and ministers need to “get to the bottom” of Mr Wragg’s assertion.

But he said he had not come across such activities in his 12 years as an MP and thought it “very unlikely” to be true.

No 10’s refusal to mount an inquiry may encourage rebel Tories to publish evidence which they have been gathering of what they regard as unacceptable behaviour by whips.

One of those involved in discussions among red wall MPs who entered parliament in 2019 told The Independent: “There is an increasing level of evidence that MPs have collated in order to be able to share if it becomes necessary to do so.”

Evidence which has been collected is reported to include a secretly recorded conversation with chief whip Mark Spencer as well as text messages sent to MPs thought to be preparing to send letters of no confidence letters.

Mr Wragg said on Thursday that the PM’s Conservative critics were receiving threats to “withdraw investments” from constituencies, as well as “intimidation” from No 10 staff.

And Christian Wakeford, the Bury South MP who defected from the Tories to Labour, said he was told funding for a new school in his constituency would be withheld if he did not vote with the government over free school meals.

In its letter to the prime minister, the Good Law Project demanded details of any complaints made by MPs, as well as confirmation that the allegations are being investigated.

The campaign group’s director Jo Maugham said: “What these reports suggest is that public money will be held back from left-behind communities unless their MP votes to overlook sleaze or scrap school meals. That’s not levelling up; it sounds much more like blackmail to me.

“We don’t think it’s lawful – it may even be criminal – and it’s certainly unfair. So we are taking legal action to benefit left-behind communities.”

Wales’s first minister Mark Drakeford said “history is catching up” with the prime minister.

“This is a government that at the moment is simply not capable of doing the ordinary business of government in a competent and sensible way because it is overwhelmed by the headlines that surround dreadful events that went on in Downing Street,” he said.

Eminent historian Peter Hennessy said that Mr Johnson’s response to the party allegations had displayed “in technicolour” the fact that he has “more disdain for the constitution” than any other PM in modern history.

Prof Hennessy told Prospect magazine: “He hasn’t got a single feel for either proper behaviour, proper procedure, not a single nerve end. He has got no sense of the restraints you need to make this work.”

Former cabinet minister Rory Stewart said he expected the Gray report to be “the last nail in the coffin” for Mr Johnson. Even if he survived for a few more months, he will be “badly wounded” and unable to regain credibility, said Stewart, who fought Johnson for the Conservative leadership in 2019.

“He was manifestly unsuited to be prime minister from the beginning, so it’s very, very disturbing that a great country like Britain should have chosen somebody so unsuitable for the role,” the former international development secretary told Sky News.

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