Rebel Tory MPs have spoken of facing intimidation and threats for turning against Boris Johnson, following a bombshell claim that those close to the prime minister have resorted to blackmail to keep him in office.
Senior Conservative William Wragg sensationally revealed that he had received reports of Johnson loyalists threatening to place smear stories in the press about Tories considering declarations of no confidence in the prime minister.
And he said that MPs had told him of warnings that investment in their constituencies would be at risk if they failed to back Mr Johnson in battle to save his political life.
The prime minister insisted he had seen “no evidence” to back the claims, which come amid a vicious Tory civil war over allegations of lockdown-busting parties in Downing Street.
But Tory MP Andrew Bridgen told The Independent that he believed a critical story about him which appeared days after he submitted a confidence letter was intended to deter colleagues from following his example.
“I was one of the first MPs out of the blocks calling for Boris Johnson to go, and within days there was a smear story out there,” said the North West Leicestershire MP.
“That wasn’t just to intimidate me, it was used to intimidate other people and say to them ‘This is what will happen to you if you sign a letter’.”
Another MP said they and others had been “hounded” with negative briefings despite making clear that they would wait for the partygate report by Whitehall mandarin Sue Gray before coming to a judgement – something the PM has appealed for people to do.
“There are a number of MPs who have told me there have been questions raised about funding,” said the red wall MP. “The whips appear to be picking on the ones they think are weaker, but it is rebounding on them because people who were previously unsure are now moving towards putting letters in.”
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Bishop Auckland MP Dehenna Davison said she was the victim of “totally fabricated” briefings accusing her of being a leader of a “pork pie plot” to remove Johnson, or of planning to defect to Labour.
“I am incredibly angry about the Downing Street parties and the prime minister’s response,” the 2019 intake MP told the Northern Echo. “But to suggest I’m leading a coup is bonkers.”
Mr Bridgen said the level of pressure being put on Tory MPs was “unprecedented in my experience”, adding: “My advice to colleagues who have faced intimidation is that the best solution is to ensure that those making threats are removed from positions of power so they can’t enact them.”
Mr Wragg, who chairs the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (Pacac), said MPs had complained of “pressures and intimidation from members of the government because of their declared or assumed desire for a vote of confidence in the party leadership”.
He told the committee: “The intimidation of a member of parliament is a serious matter. The reports of which I’m aware would seem to constitute blackmail.”
Mr Wragg, who is one of a handful of Tories to have confirmed submitting a confidence letter to 1922 Committee chair Sir Graham Brady, urged any MPs facing intimidation to go the police.
Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle later said that it would be “contempt” to use intimidation to obstruct MPs from fulfilling their duties, and warned the Commons that its members are “not above the criminal law”.
The Metropolitan Police said they would consider any complaints made to officers.
But Mr Johnson, visiting a medical centre in Somerset, insisted: “I’ve seen no evidence, heard no evidence, to support any of those allegations.”
And a No 10 spokesperson said: “We are not aware of any evidence to support what are clearly serious allegations. If there is any evidence to support these claims we would look at it very carefully.”
Former Tory MP Christian Wakeford, who sensationally defected to Labour on Wednesday after demanding Mr Johnson’s resignation, said that he was warned that funding for a school in his Bury South constituency might be withdrawn if he did not “vote in a particular way”.
“This is a town that’s not had a high school for the best part of 10 years and how would you feel holding back the regeneration of the town for a vote?” he said.
“It didn’t sit comfortably and that was really my starting to question my place where I was and ultimately where I am now.”
Boris Johnson says ‘no evidence’ on ‘blackmail’ allegations
Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross said the allegations are “serious” and should be “properly investigated”, while first minister Nicola Sturgeon said it would be “corruption” if investment was being held back from the constituencies of Mr Johnson’s critics.
But culture secretary Nadine Dorries sought to dismiss the allegations as “attention-seeking behaviour from William Wragg”, a long-standing critic of the PM.
Describing his claims as “nonsense”, she told BBC News: “This is not how government works.”
And Workington MP Mark Jenkinson, another member of the 2019 group, said that he had been spoken to by whips during earlier rebellions, but insisted: “I can categorically state that none of those conversations have ever involved threats, implicit or explicit.”
Tory MP Michael Fabricant, a former whip, described Mr Wragg’s comments as “disgraceful”, and asked: “If [William Wragg] was being ‘blackmailed’ as he claims, what is there about his private life that he doesn’t want made public?”
“If I reported every time I had been threatened by a whip or if a whip reported every time I had threatened them, the police wouldn’t have any time to conduct any other police work,” said the Lichfield MP.
Veteran Tory MP Sir Roger Gale, who was the first to send a letter to Sir Graham, told The Independent that current whipping behaviour was “like being tickled with a feather” compared to the brutal tactics of earlier generations.
But he said that threatening to withdraw constituency investment would “cross a line”.
Rebel Tories were today holding fire after a predicted flood of confidence letters failed to materialise on Wednesday, with most expecting that the threshold of 54 needed to trigger a leadership vote will not be reached until Ms Gray’s report is published.
But senior backbencher Steve Baker said he believed Mr Johnson had reached “checkmate”.
Mr Baker, a ringleader of the plot to unseat Theresa May over her Brexit plans, said he was not involved in organising efforts to remove Johnson.
But he told BBC’s Political Thinking podcast: “We didn’t make Boris Johnson for his meticulous grasp of tedious rules, but this is appalling and the public are rightly furious.
“At the moment I’m afraid it does look like checkmate. Whether he can save himself we’ll see.”