Anger over Boris Johnson’s reshuffle promotion for chief whip in Islamophobia row

Jacob Rees-Mogg’s move to minister for Brexit opportunities branded ‘surreal’ after he said it could take 50 years for benefits to become apparent

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
Wednesday 09 February 2022 00:24
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Government ministers leave Downing Street as Boris Johnson reshuffles Cabinet

Boris Johnson has been accused of having “complete disregard for standards in politics” after using a reshuffle to promote chief whip Mark Spencer, who has been accused of “blackmail” against MPs and is currently under investigation for alleged Islamophobia.

In a shake-up of his top team, designed to help him draw a line under the Partygate scandal, the prime minister made Mr Spencer leader of the Commons, a role in which he must act as custodian of the Westminster complaints system as well as upholding the rights and interests of backbench MPs.

But Mr Spencer is the subject of an official investigation into claims, which he denies, that he told Tory MP Nusrat Ghani she was being demoted from a ministerial position because her “Muslimness” made others uncomfortable.

And another Conservative backbencher, William Wragg, went to the police after alleging that whips under Mr Spencer’s leadership were making threats to MPs which amounted to blackmail, including the suggestion that funding would be removed from their constituencies if they failed to back Mr Johnson.

Meanwhile, former Commons leader Jacob Rees-Mogg’s move to the newly created role of minister for Brexit opportunities was branded “surreal” by the former chair of the European parliament’s Brexit steering group, Guy Verhofstadt, who pointed out that Mr Rees-Mogg had previously suggested it could take 50 years for the benefits of EU withdrawal to become apparent.

According to The Times, Mr Johnson is planning to carry out a full reshuffle in the summer ahead of the next general election. A government source told the newspaper: "It will be the team he wants for the run-in."

There were signs on Tuesday that the mini reshuffle – which saw a handful of ministers moved between departments but none sacked – did not go far enough to satisfy Tory MPs, who have called for change at No 10 in the wake of the Partygate scandal.

Senior backbencher Sir Bernard Jenkin said Mr Johnson “has got to sort this out”.

“We’re interested not in the optics, in some impression of a reset,” said the Commons Liaison Committee chair. “We’re looking for a change in the capability and the character of the government, so that nothing as clumsy and mortifying as this Partygate episode could ever happen again.”

Ms Ghani pointedly retweeted a statement she had made when Mr Johnson first ordered a Cabinet Office inquiry into her allegations of Islamophobia, in which she said: “All I want is for this to be taken seriously.”

It comes just days after Tory ex-MEP Sajjad Karim told The Independent that his own unrelated complaint about alleged Islamophobic comments by a minister was ignored by the party.

Labour’s Thangam Debbonaire, who will shadow Mr Spencer in his new role, said: “It is completely inappropriate for the prime minister to appoint as leader of the House of Commons a man who faces an ongoing investigation into grotesque racism, and who has been publicly accused of blackmail and threatening to withdraw investments for schools and hospitals unless MPs toe the line.

“This is just the latest in a long line of appointments that demonstrates this government’s complete disregard for standards in politics.”

And MP Afzal Khan said his first question to the new Commons leader at the despatch box would be: “Can we have a debate on Islamophobia in government time?”

There were also questions raised over Mr Spencer’s role in whipping Tory backbenchers to back Mr Johnson’s attempt to save Brexit ally Owen Paterson from punishment after he was found guilty of breaching lobbying rules – something which eventually forced a U-turn from the PM amid fury among his own MPs.

The chair of the Commons Standards Committee, Chris Bryant, said: “His role in the Owen Paterson affair brought the house into disrepute. That seems a very odd appointment.”

Close Johnson ally Chris Heaton-Harris replaced Mr Spencer as chief whip, and Christopher Pincher was named as his deputy.

Both had played leading roles in the parallel whipping system created by the PM, under the codename Operation Save Big Dog, to shore up his position against demands for a confidence vote over lockdown-breaching parties at No 10.

Mr Johnson’s official spokesperson said the reshuffle made good on the PM’s promise to MPs last week to improve operations in Downing St and the Cabinet Office and strengthen the connection between No 10 and the parliamentary party.

They declined to comment on Mr Spencer’s promotion, saying it would be wrong to “pre-empt” the investigation.

Mr Spencer last month referred himself for investigation after revealing he was the whip who had spoken to Ms Ghani in 2020, and said she had declined the offer of a formal investigation at the time.

He said in January: “These accusations are completely false and I consider them to be defamatory. I have never used those words attributed to me.”

In other moves, deputy chief whip Stuart Andrew was moved to Michael Gove’s levelling up department as housing minister, and James Cleverly was moved within the Foreign Office, giving up his Middle East and north Africa brief to become minister for Europe. Wendy Morton was promoted to minister of state rank in the Department for Transport.

In changes designed to redistribute the workload of the chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster, Stephen Barclay, following his appointment as No 10 chief of staff, paymaster general Michael Ellis and assistant whip Heather Wheeler were given additional roles inside the Cabinet Office.

Mr Johnson also reportedly doubled the number of parliamentary private secretaries (PPSs), whom he counts on to be his eyes and ears in the Commons, from two to four. Lia Nici, Joy Morrissey and James Duddridge were named as joining existing PPS Sarah Dines in the role, while his other PPS Andrew Griffith was promoted to No 10 policy chief.

Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner accused Mr Johnson of “reshuffling the deckchairs when he’s already hit an iceberg”, while Liberal Democrat frontbencher Layla Moran dismissed the reshuffle as “a pathetic attempt to distract from the Downing Street Partygate scandal, putting Boris Johnson’s political survival ahead of the national interest”.

And the SNP’s deputy leader in Westminster, Kirsten Oswald, said: “No amount of shuffling the deckchairs on the Titanic can stop Boris Johnson’s sleaze-ridden government from sinking further into chaos.”

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