Johnson’s team accused of blackmail in bid to stem rebellion

  • A protester holds a placard with a photograph of Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Wednesday, in Parliament Square in London. Getty Images/TNS

Published: 1/20/2022 8:38:54 PM
Modified: 1/20/2022 8:37:49 PM

A U.K. Conservative lawmaker accused Boris Johnson’s parliamentary fixers of “intimidation” and “blackmail” as they battled to fend off a challenge to the prime minister’s leadership this week, and urged members of Parliament to report the matter to the police.

“The intimidation of a member of Parliament is a serious matter,” William Wragg, who chairs the House of Commons’ influential Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, said at a hearing on Thursday. “Moreover, reports of which I’m aware would seem to constitute blackmail.”

He also accused the Tory whips — the lawmakers responsible for maintaining party discipline — of threatening to withdraw taxpayer funding from areas represented by rebel MPs.

Asked to respond in a pooled broadcast interview, Johnson said: “I see no evidence, have heard no evidence to support any of those allegations.” A spokesperson for Johnson’s office also said they were “not aware of any evidence to support what are clearly serious allegations,” and pledged to look at any such evidence “very carefully.”

Wragg’s dramatic statement is a further blow to Johnson, who is battling for survival over allegations he and his team held parties at his Downing Street office that broke pandemic rules designed and imposed by the government. Support for the ruling Conservatives has plummeted.

While Johnson appeared to have overcome the immediate threat following his appearance in Parliament on Wednesday, the intervention from Wragg — who has previously called on him to resign — shows the danger has not passed.

There was a further potential setback for Johnson on Thursday when ITV News reported that senior civil servant Sue Gray, who is conducting a probe into the alleged parties, has found an email from a government official warning the premier’s principal private secretary, Martin Reynolds, not to go ahead with a party on May 20, 2020 because a lockdown was in place across the country.

That goes to the heart of the threat facing Johnson, who apologized in Parliament last week for attending the gathering while insisting he believed it was a “work” event. He has also said he was unaware of the gathering beforehand and that nobody told him it was against the rules.

But his former top aide, Dominic Cummings, accused the prime minister of lying to MPs, writing on his blog that Johnson had agreed with Reynolds to go ahead with the party — Reynolds is reported to have emailed “bring your own booze” invitations — despite “at least two” people raising their concerns.

Johnson’s apology failed to stem the growing anger in the ruling party, with several Conservative MPs publicly calling for him to resign. His former cabinet colleague and Brexit ally David Davis dramatically told Johnson in Parliament on Wednesday: “In the name of God, go!”

Moments earlier, Christian Wakeford, elected in 2019 as a Conservative MP for Bury South in northwest England, defected to the main opposition Labour party.

On Thursday, Wragg said a number of Conservative MPs had “faced pressures and intimidation from members of the government because of their declared or assumed desire” to force a no-confidence vote on the prime minister.

Whips moved against the plotters on Tuesday, amid fevered speculation in Westminster that Johnson was facing an imminent leadership challenge. According to one MP familiar with the matter, whips circulated names of lawmakers they regarded as the ringleaders in a bid to isolate them.

Johnson would face a confidence vote on his leadership if 54 Tory MPs, or 15% of the total in the House of Commons, submit letters to a key committee calling for him to resign. Only a handful have said they have done so, though the actual number submitted is a closely guarded secret and the whips are under pressure to ensure the threshold is not breached.

Wragg said last week it was time for Johnson to quit over the allegations of Downing Street parties during the pandemic lockdown. “It’s difficult enough for colleagues,” he told BBC radio. “They’re tired, they’re frankly worn out of defending what is invariably indefensible.”


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