No Downing Street investigation into blackmail claims, despite minister’s call for probe

Rebel Tories considering publication of evidence of alleged intimidation

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
Friday 21 January 2022 13:22
Comments
William Wragg alleges 'blackmail' against Tory MPs plotting against Boris Johnson

Downing Street is refusing to conduct an inquiry into allegations of intimidation and blackmail by government whips, despite a cabinet minister’s call for an investigation.

Asked repeatedly at a Westminster media briefing on Friday whether No 10 was looking into allegations from senior Tory William Wragg, a Downing Street spokesperson said only that evidence would be considered “if it comes forward”.

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 in the PM over the partygate affair.

Business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng today said there should be an investigation into “completely unacceptable” allegations that MPs have been threatened with withdrawal of funding from their constituencies if they declare no confidence in Boris Johnson as prime minister.

Mr Kwarteng said ministers “need to get to the bottom of the matter” but that he believes it is “very unlikely” the claims are true.

But under sustained questioning, the Downing Street spokesperson was unable to point to any efforts by No 10 proactively to investigate the claims

And he repeatedly refused to comment on the alleged behaviour of whips, insisting that this was a matter for the Conservative Party despite the fact that they are employed by the government and paid with taxpayers’ money and are subject to the ministerial code of conduct.

Mr Wragg sensationally claimed on Thursday that Tory MPs considering triggering a no confidence vote in the PM had received threats to “withdraw investments” from constituencies, as well as “intimidation” from No 10 staff.

The chair of the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee said the threats could amount to “blackmail” and urged colleagues to report them to the police.

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

Mr Kwarteng told Sky News: “As far as the specific allegation about whips withholding funds, I think that’s completely unacceptable. Any form of blackmail and intimidation of that kind simply has no place in British politics.

“We need to get to the bottom of the matter. But I find it very unlikely that these allegations are true.”

Mr Johnson said on Thursday that he had neither seen nor heard any evidence of intimidation of MPs, while a Downing Street source said: “If there is any evidence to support these claims we would look at it very carefully.”

The row has sparked debate over the role of the whips, renowned over decades for their sometimes ruthless enforcement of discipline among MPs.

By convention, official Downing Street press spokespeople do not comment on the instructions given by whips to party MPs. But No 10 today suggested that this code of silence also extended to allegations of misbehaviour.

The No 10 spokesperson said only that he “can’t get into matters of whipping”.

Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle said on Thursday it could be a contempt of Parliament to obstruct MPs in their work, adding that MPs and their staff are “not above the criminal law”.

“While the whipping system is long-established, it is of course a contempt to obstruct members in the discharge of their duty or to attempt to intimidate a member in their parliamentary conduct by threats,” he said.

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