Downing Street has admitted Boris Johnson was aware of some of the sexual misconduct allegations against Chris Pincher before he gave the now disgraced Tory MP a job overseeing party discipline and welfare.
Number 10’s shifting explanation of what Johnson knew about Pincher’s alleged misconduct has fuelled Tory concern over the prime minister’s handling of the affair and revived talk of another attempt to remove him.
“It’s another self-inflicted wound,” said one minister loyal to Johnson, referring to Downing Street’s handling of the allegations relating to Pincher, who last week quit as Conservative deputy chief whip and was then suspended from the parliamentary party.
Elections due next week to the 16-strong executive of the 1922 committee of backbench Conservative MPs are expected to be a new flashpoint in rebel Tories’ efforts to unseat Johnson.
The rebels aim to change party rules overseen by the 1922 committee to allow another vote of no confidence in the prime minister in the autumn. The prime minister won a confidence vote by 59 per cent to 41 per cent last month and under current rules cannot face another vote until June 2023.
Pincher was accused of groping two men at a private members’ club in London last week. He admitted being drunk, and one his alleged victims has complained to parliament’s Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme.
Sunday newspapers outlined allegations of misconduct against Pincher that dated back more than a decade.
Downing Street initially said last week that Johnson was not aware of any “specific allegations” against Pincher before he was appointed Tory deputy chief whip in February.
On Monday Johnson’s spokesman said the prime minister was aware of media reports and allegations against Pincher that were “either resolved or did not proceed to a formal complaint”.
Johnson took advice from political and civil service advisers in February: Downing Street said they did not tell him there were any substantiated reasons not to appoint Pincher.
But ministers and Conservative MPs are tiring of Johnson’s missteps and his failure to close down rows quickly. “People are getting weary of all this,” said one minister.
One longstanding Johnson supporter said he had witnessed three different Downing Street “operations” since he became prime minister.
“The current one is the absolute worst, there’s no discipline, no strategy and no one seeing obvious problems ahead,” he added.
There were empty seats behind Johnson when he gave a House of Commons statement on Monday about recent G7, Nato and Commonwealth summits, as Tory MPs stayed away from the chamber.
Conservative MPs plotting to remove Johnson think there could be another uprising this autumn, following the results of a Commons privileges committee investigation into whether the prime minister knowingly misled parliament over the partygate scandal.
There are three broad slates of MPs running for positions on the 1922 executive: those who are pro-Johnson; those who oppose the prime minister but do not want to change the party rules on no confidence votes; and those who are against him and favour reform.
The committee is currently dominated by Johnson sceptics who are wary of overhauling the rules on the grounds it would be impossible for a Tory prime minister to govern if they faced a no-confidence vote every few months.
But one veteran MP said it was “very possible” that a new team could be elected to the executive that is more amenable to rule changes.
Steve Baker, a serial Tory rebel who is expected to stand for election to the 1922 executive, is seen by MPs as the most influential candidate open to changing the party’s rules.
One senior backbencher said: “If Steve is elected to the ‘22, Boris should be very worried.”