The Pork Pie plotters working to oust Boris Johnson are considering publishing messages they received from party whips which they believe will prove the Tory leadership attempted to blackmail and intimidate them into submission.
The Tory rebels, who met secretly this week to plot the PM’s political demise, were branded ‘attention-seeking schoolchildren’ by cabinet ministers after they failed – at least so far – to gather enough letters of no confidence to trigger a vote on the future of Mr Johnson’s premiership.
But since the gathering, dubbed the Pork Pie Putsch – as it took place in the office of Alice Kearns MP for Melton Mowbray, aka home of the pork pie – the group claim they have been the victims of political threats.
Party whips are accused of threatening to withdraw funding from their constituencies, while government aides allegedly smeared them by releasing unsubstantiated claims about their drinking habits and personal lives in the press. The claims have been denied by No 10.
It comes ahead of a crucial weekend for Mr Johnson as he ‘rips up his diary’ for one on one and small group sessions with ‘wavering MPs’ in a bid to deter leadership challenges.
Meanwhile, according to the Times, the group of Tory rebels met on Thursday to discuss their next move.
‘They were comparing notes and discussing whether or not to make public texts and other evidence they have from the whips,’ a source close to the group said.
The blackmail claims were supported by Tory defector Christian Wakeford, the MP for Bury South who sensationally crossed the aisle to Labour yesterday
William Wragg, chair of the Commons Public Administration Committee, said he had been told of ‘pressures and intimidation’ being used on politicians
‘One member has recorded a heated conversation that they had with the chief whip.’
The material could be released to the press or the public in a move that could humiliate the PM after he denied that any of the rebels had been ‘blackmailed’ into supporting him.
One rebel told the Telegraph: ‘We want the Chief Whip’s head on a spike.’
However, a source involved in the whipping operation told the same paper that claims of threats and blackmail were ‘complete bull****’.
The source added: ‘Ask them for a single shred of evidence.’
It comes after the rebels were urged to report the blackmail claims to the authorities by William Wragg, chairman of the public administration committee and one of seven Tory MPs who submitted a letter of no confidence in the PM.
‘The intimidation of an MP is a serious matter,’ he said Thursday.
‘Moreover the reports of which I’m aware would seem to constitute blackmail.
‘As such it would be my general advice to colleagues to report these matters to the Speaker of the House of Commons and the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police.’
Recalling a heated moment with a party whip after voting against the Government last year, another rebel alleged: ‘They pulled me over and I told them I was voting against them.
The material could be released to the press or the public in a move that could humiliate the PM after he denied that any of the rebels had been ‘blackmailed’ into supporting him
A poll this week found that the Tories are 11 points behind Labour in crucial Red Wall seats – a dramatic turnaround from the nine-point advantage they had at the 2019 election
The dramatic intervention came as a poll suggested Mr Johnson’s popularity ratings have sunk to a similar level as Jeremy Corbyn before the 2019 general election, while Rishi Sunak is being seen more favourably
William Wragg’s statement on government pressure tactics against Tory MPs
In recent days a number of members of parliament have faced pressures and intimidation from members of the government because of their declared or assumed desire for a vote of confidence in the party leadership of the Prime Minister.
It is of course the duty of the government whips’ office to secure the government’s business in the House of Commons.
However it is not their function to breach the ministerial code in threatening to withdraw investments from members of parliament’s constituencies which are funded from the public purse.
Additionally, reports to me and others of members of staff at No 10 Downing Street, special advisers, government ministers and others encouraging the publication of stories in the press seeking to embarrass those who they suspect of lacking confidence in the Prime Minister is similarly unacceptable.
The intimidation of a member of parliament is a serious matter.
Moreover, the reports of which I’m aware would seem to constitute blackmail.
As such, it would be my general advice to colleagues to report these matters to the Speaker of the House of Commons and the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, and they’re also welcome to contact me at any time.
‘They got right up in my face. They told me that if you think you’re getting a single f***ing penny, forget it.
‘If you think a minister is coming to your patch forget it. You’re done.’
The Tory plotters, who included Bishop Auckland MP Dehenna Davison, West Dorset MP Chris Loder and Totnes MP Anthony Mangnall, were said to have concluded that the Partygate row was ‘terminal’ for the PM and discussed sending in their letters en masse to force a contest.
But news of the plot quickly reached the ears of Tory whips who have been on red alert for signs of disloyalty.
Wavering MPs were summoned for meetings with senior party figures, with some even ushered in to see the PM.
No 10 yesterday denied claims that the PM was in tears as he pleaded with them not to finish him off. But sources acknowledged he was in listening mode, asking potential rebels to tell him ‘what I can do’ to win them over.
At the same time, individual plotters were singled out for special treatment, with chief whip Mark Spencer making doorstep visits.
MP for Bury South Christian Wakeford, a drinking pal of Miss Davison, was one of several MPs said to have been warned by whips that boundary changes to their constituencies could see them squeezed out at the next election unless they backed down.
Other blackmail claims have since been made by Wakeford after he sensationally crossed the aisle yesterday.
He told BBC North West that when he previously planned to vote against the Government, he was told a new high school would not be built in his constituency.
‘I was threatened that I would not get the school for Radcliffe if I did not vote in one particular way,’ he said.
‘This is a town that’s not had a high school for the best part of ten years. How would you feel when holding back regeneration of a town for a vote? It didn’t sit comfortably.’
There have been suggestions Mr Wakeford was pushed ‘over the edge’ to defect when he was hauled in and threatened with having the boundaries of his seat redrawn if he went against the PM.
But Mr Johnson told reporters on a visit to Taunton: ‘I’ve seen no evidence to support any of those allegations.
‘What I am focused on is what we’re doing to deal with the number one priority of the British people, which is coming through Covid.’
Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner said Mr Wragg – who has been heavily critical of Mr Johnson and previously called for him to quit – had highlighted ‘grave and shocking accusations of bullying, blackmail, and misuse of public money’ that ‘must be investigated thoroughly’.
Speaker Lindsay Hoyle said in the Commons chamber that he was not aware of any details, but his ‘general observation’ was that government members were not ‘above the criminal law’ and attempting to ‘intimidate’ an MP would be a contempt of Parliament.
A No 10 spokesman 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.’
How could Boris Johnson be ousted by Tory MPs?
Boris Johnson is under huge pressure over Partygate, with speculation that he might even opt to walk away.
But barring resignation, the Tories have rules on how to oust and replace the leader.
What is the mechanism for removing the Tory leader?
Tory Party rules allow the MPs to force a vote of no confidence in their leader.
How is that triggered?
A vote is in the hands of the chairman of the Tory Party’s backbench 1922 Committee, Sir Graham Brady.
A vote of no confidence must be held if 15 per cent of Tory MPs write to the chairman. Currently that threshold is 54 MPs.
Letters are confidential unless the MP sending it makes it public. This means only Sir Graham knows how many letters there are.
What happens when the threshold is reached?
A secret ballot is held, with the leader technically only needing to win support from a simple majority of MPs
But in reality, a solid victory is essential for them to stay in post.
What happens if the leader loses?
The leader is sacked if they do not win a majority of votes from MPs, and a leadership contest begins in which they cannot stand.
However, when the party is in power the outgoing leader typically stay on as Prime Minister until a replacement is elected.
There is no requirement for a general election to be held, unless the new PM wants to call one.
Heavy tactics by government whips are notorious at Westminster, and allegations have surfaced during the latest furore about the behaviour of supposed rebels.
The dramatic intervention by Mr Wragg came as a poll suggested Mr Johnson’s popularity ratings have sunk to a similar level as Jeremy Corbyn before the 2019 general election, while Rishi Sunak is being seen more favourably.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid conceded today that Mr Johnson has been ‘damaged’, despite the immediate threat receding after the defection and extraordinary attack from veteran David Davis at PMQs yesterday.
Steve Baker, one of the leading rebels against Theresa May, insisted today that he would not be ‘organising’ against Mr Johnson – but said he thought it looks like ‘checkmate’.
He told the BBC’s Political Thinking podcast: ‘Honestly, at the moment, I’m looking to the cabinet for leadership.
‘At the moment, I’m afraid it does look like checkmate – but whether he can save himself, we’ll see’.
It comes as it was revealed Boris Johnson will hold a series of intensive meetings with Tory MPs this weekend in an attempt to head off the threat of a leadership challenge.
Whitehall sources said the Prime Minister had torn up his diary to talk with wobbling MPs ahead of the expected publication next week of the official inquiry into the ‘Partygate’ row by Whitehall ethics chief Sue Gray.
Some MPs will be seen one to one while others will be asked to discuss their concerns with the PM in small groups.
Sources believe similar meetings earlier this week helped to defuse the threat of the ‘Pork Pie Plot’ coup by Red Wall MPs.
Mr Johnson will urge MPs to ‘look at the bigger picture’, most notably the success of his strategy for dealing with the emergence of the Omicron strain, which is seeing the UK emerge from Covid restrictions faster than other European countries.
But one senior Tory said the earlier sessions were not a complete success, with the PM unwilling to guarantee no more damaging revelations will come out.
The source said Mr Johnson had pleaded with Lee Anderson, MP for Ashfield in Nottinghamshire, to retract a letter of no confidence sent to Tory shop steward Sir Graham Brady, only for Mr Anderson to refuse.
Whitehall sources said the Prime Minister had torn up his diary to talk with wobbling MPs ahead of the expected publication next week of the official inquiry into the ‘Partygate’ row by Whitehall ethics chief Sue Gray (Pictured: The PM at PMQs on Wednesday)
The source added that the PM became ‘very emotional’ during the meeting – a version of events denied by No 10.
Mr Anderson, a former Labour councillor, declined to say yesterday whether he had submitted a letter or turned down a request from the PM.
But another Tory MP said reports claiming rebels were withdrawing their letters were ‘bull****’.
Bishop Auckland MP Dehenna Davison, identified by Tory whips as a ringleader of the Pork Pie Plot, denied this yesterday – but did not voice support for Mr Johnson.
She told the Northern Echo newspaper: ‘I am incredibly angry about the Downing Street parties and the Prime Minister’s response.
‘It will be for the Prime Minister himself, or the Conservative Party collectively, to decide the Prime Minister’s future.
‘Of course, I have had a number of conversations with colleagues about this, as is the case with every political development, be it policy-based or otherwise, but to suggest I’m leading a coup is bonkers.’
Mr Johnson refused to comment on the plotting against him yesterday during a brief question and answer session with journalists while on a visit to a health centre in Taunton, Somerset.
The official inquiry into Partygate, led by Whitehall ethics chief Sue Gray (pictured) is expected to be published next week
He said his ‘No 1 priority’ was ‘looking at the state of our country as we come out of Covid’, adding: ‘We hope that we’re now on a route map back to complete normality.’
Mr Johnson’s former adviser Dominic Cummings claimed yesterday that Miss Gray was already uncovering emails showing he was telling the truth about the parties and No 10 was ‘lying’.
But Health Secretary Sajid Javid urged MPs and the public to wait for the publication of the report.
He said people were ‘right to be angry’ over the allegations of lockdown-busting events at No 10, but added that he believed the PM was safe in his job.
However, Brexiteer Steve Baker, who helped engineer Theresa May’s downfall, said the situation ‘does look like checkmate’ for Mr Johnson.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak, a frontrunner for Mr Johnson’s job should the PM be forced out, refused to be drawn on the subject during a visit to Stoke, insisting he and the Government were focused on delivering their ‘levelling-up’ agenda.