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A senior Tory today warned Boris Johnson’s allies might be ‘blackmailing’ would-be rebels and urged them to call in the police – as the PM was given a temporary reprieve from the Partygate coup attempt.
William Wragg, chair of the Commons Public Administration Committee, said he had been told of ‘pressures and intimidation’ being used on politicians.
In an excoriating attack at the start of an evidence session, Mr Wragg suggested members of the government might have breached the ministerial code by threatening to pull investment from constituencies if people send in letters of no confidence.
‘Additionally reports to me and others of members of staff at No10 Downing Street, special advisers, government ministers and others encouraging the publication of stories in the press seeking to embarrass those they suspect of lacking confidence in the PM is similarly unacceptable,’ Mr Wragg said.
‘The intimidation of an MP is a serious matter. Moreover the reports of which I am 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.’
Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner said Mr Wragg had highlighted ‘grave and shocking accusations of bullying, blackmail, and misuse of public money’ that ‘must be investigated thoroughly’.
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.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid conceded today that Mr Johnson has been ‘damaged’, despite the immediate threat receding after the defection of Red Wall MP Christian Wakeford shocked the Tories into closing ranks.
Meanwhile, ministers have shrugged off an extraordinary attack from veteran David Davis at PMQs yesterday, in which he ordered Mr Johnson to ‘in the name of God, go’.
But restive MPs have warned that Mr Johnson has only been given a stay of execution, with many holding off on deciding whether to send no-confidence letters to the chair of the powerful 1922 committee until after an inquiry by top civil servant Sue Gray reports.
There are claims that while Ms Gray will not directly criticise Mr Johnson it could paint a very grim picture of his Downing Street operation. ‘It’s not going to be as good as people think,’ a government source told the Times. ‘She’s genuinely struggling to reconcile the prime minister’s claim that this was a work event with what she’s been hearing from other people. It’s very difficult for her.’
Meanwhile, rumours are swirling that five more Tories are in talks with Labour about defecting, as polls suggest many in the Red Wall face losing their seats at the next election.
In a round of interviews this morning, Mr Javid made little effort to varnish the challenge faced by the PM.
‘It is damaging, of course it is,’ the Health Secretary told Sky News.
Mr Javid said ‘there were some parties’ and people were ‘right to be angry’, insisting those who broke the rules should be ‘disciplined’. He singled out the leaving bashes in Downing Street on the eve of Prince Philip’s funeral last April as ‘wrong in every single way’.
He also stated bluntly that if Mr Johnson is found to have broken the law he will have to go.
‘The Ministerial Code is very clear. If any minister from the Prime Minister down breaks the law, of course they shouldn’t continue to serve as a minister,’ he said.
‘What I have just said is a general rule that applies to everyone. There is no exception to that rule.’
William Wragg, chair of the Commons Public Administration Committee, said he had been told of ‘pressures and intimidation’ being used on politicians
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
Sajid Javid (right) admitted Boris Johnson (left) has been ‘damaged’ today after the PM fended off the ‘Pork Pie’ plot to oust him – but possibly only for a few days
A cheerful-looking Boris Johnson was driven to do his morning jog in Westminster, after weathering another tough day
David Davis warned the Tory Party is ‘dying a death of 1,000 cuts’ and faces a ‘year of agony’ if it does not act swiftly to oust Boris Johnson over allegations of rule-breaking parties in Downing Street
Mr Wakeford was welcomed by his new party leader Sir Keir Starmer in his parliamentary office last night
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.
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.
Responding to the statement from Mr Wragg, Ms Rayner said: ‘These are grave and shocking accusations of bullying, blackmail, and misuse of public money and must be investigated thoroughly.
‘The idea that areas of our country will be starved of funding because their MPs don’t fall into line to prop up this failing Prime Minister is disgusting.’
As the Downing Street machine finally cranked into gear yesterday, No10 said Mr Johnson will fight any no-confidence vote launched against him and insisted he expects to fight the next general election.
He has been personally meeting wavering MPs in a bid to shore up support on his back benches.
Tory whips yesterday launched a concerted drive to crush the Pork Pie Plot, which acquired its name because of the involvement of Melton Mowbray MP Alicia Kearns.
The plotters suggested that by 5pm yesterday the target of 54 letters needed to force a vote of no confidence in the PM would be passed. But the deadline came and went.
One Cabinet loyalist last night said the enormity of the plot was giving wavering MPs pause for thought.
‘The sight of one of your own crossing the floor to join Labour reminds people how high the stakes are,’ the source said. ‘People are also having to face the question of what happens next. There is not a Boris figure to rally round who would do better electorally.’
Andrew Percy, Brigg and Goole MP, told BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme: ‘It’s kind of made people a bit more relaxed, it’s calmed nerves.
‘I think people have recognised that actually this constant navel gazing and internal debating is only to the advantage of our political opponents.
‘The Prime Minister is probably thanking Christian for what he did because it’s made a lot of people think again, think twice.’
Despite the temporary reprieve, the anger from a former minister first elected in 1987 and Mr Wakeford, elected to the so-called Red Wall seat of Bury South two years ago, showed the breadth of the fury in the party.
One Cabinet source said the mutineers had ‘overplayed their hand’, adding: ‘They are inexperienced and it has shown in the past 24 hours.’
Several wavering Tory MPs yesterday said they were waiting to see the report before deciding whether to move against Mr Johnson.
Andrew Bowie, a former vice-chairman of the party, said: ‘I think the Prime Minister should be considering his position, but my position is that we need to wait and see what the facts were.’ Downing Street had hoped that Miss Gray’s report would be published this week to give the PM the chance to draw a line under the affair.
But Whitehall sources yesterday said the constant drip-drip of new allegations, including from Mr Cummings, meant it would be delayed.
Rebel Andrew Bridgen, one of seven MPs to publicly declare they have submitted letters against the PM, predicted Mr Cummings would publish a slew of further allegations if a vote of confidence is triggered. ‘Dominic Cummings will unleash everything in his arsenal at that point to finish him off,’ he said.
In an interview with the Daily Telegraph, Mr Davis said: ‘The party is going to have to make a decision or we face dying a death of 1,000 cuts.’
The PM will appear to be ‘shifting the blame’ if he fires staff after senior civil servant Sue Gray delivers her inquiry into events held at No 10 during Covid restrictions, the Haltemprice and Howden MP said.
Then there will be the ‘crises’ of rising energy bills and the National Insurance hike being compounded by the ‘disorganisation’ at No 10, which could trigger a vote of no confidence at Christmas, meaning a ‘year of agony’, he continued.
‘That’s the worst outcome, particularly for the 2019 and 2017 and 2015 intake – that, slice by slice by slice, this carries on and we bump along at minus whatever and, even worse, we create policies to try to paper over it.’
Speaking shortly after his Commons outburst, Mr Davis admitted: ‘I’ve just made myself the most unpopular person in the Tory party.
‘Well, the second most unpopular. But I’ve gone from thinking maybe we can rescue it to maybe we just have to accelerate it and get it done.’
Commons Leader Jacob Rees-Mogg described David Davis as a ‘lone wolf’ as he downplayed the senior Tory MP’s ‘theatrical’ call for Boris Johnson to resign.
Mr Rees-Mogg told Channel 4 News: ‘He is a distinguished member of the Conservative Party but he’s always been something of a lone wolf.
‘No-one would call David a lightweight, he’s a very serious political figure, but his comments today were too theatrical.’
Mr Wakeford, who was elected in 2019 with a majority of just 402 votes, accused Mr Johnson of being ‘incapable of offering the leadership and government this country deserves’ as he switched sides.
Following a joint media appearance with Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, Mr Wakeford said the Tories are ‘a party trying to defend the indefensible’ as he explained his defection.
A Labour spokesman said the party had been in talks with Mr Wakeford for ‘some time’ and would welcome an election, after Mr Johnson said the Tories would win back Bury South.
He declined to say whether there are more Conservative MPs considering defecting, while the Prime Minister’s press secretary said she was not aware of any.
Mr Johnson pictured with 2019 intake MPs after his huge election victory. Ringed are some of the alleged Pork Pie plotters, with Mr Wakeford second from left
However, embattled Boris Johnson was gifted some breathing space on Partygate on Wednesday night as Tories closed rank.
There are claims the flow of letters demanding a no-confidence vote has been stemmed after Mr Wakeford dramatically crossed the floor to join Keir Starmer.
Conservatives immediately focused their fury on the betrayal by the Red Wall MP, who has a wafer-thin majority of just 402 in Bury South. Meanwhile, Mr Davis’ full-frontal attack also seemed to backfire.
A Cabinet minister told MailOnline: ‘The tribal nature of politics and the ”professional grump” nature of David seems to have cooled the mood,’ they said.
Allies of Mr Johnson branded Mr Davis ‘a loner’, while another MP who has been increasingly frustrated at Mr Johnson’s performance said he appeared to be ‘back to his normal self’.
‘If you are going to tell the boss to resign you do it privately,’ an ex-minister said. ‘He is not a popular character. He is very prickly.’
Amid what has been dubbed a ‘Pork Pie plot’ by 2019 intake politicians, Mr Wakeford already declared he had put in a letter of no confidence in Mr Johnson.
Sir Keir goaded Mr Johnson in the Commons yesterday that any more defectors were ‘welcome’, saying the Tories had shown they were ‘incapable’ of governing the country.
‘The Labour Party has changed and so has the Conservative Party,’ he said. ‘He and anyone else who wants to build a new Britain built on decency, security … is welcomed in my Labour Party.’
But Mr Johnson, who was flanked by Rishi Sunak and Priti Patel on the front bench, shot back: ‘As for Bury South, let me say to him, the Conservative Party won Bury South for the first time in a generation under this Prime Minister on an agenda of of uniting and levelling up and delivering for the people of Bury South. We will win again in Bury South.’
Dehenna Davison with rescued puppy ‘Carter’ pictured next to Carrie Johnson with dog Dilyn and Rishi Sunak, canvasing in Bishop Auckland. She is thought to be one of the ringleaders
Some of the backbench Tory plotters include Alicia Kearns (left), who represents Melton Mowbray, and Gary Sambrook (right) from Birmingham Northfield
A poll today 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 government has been ramping up ‘Operation Red Meat’ with crowd-pleasing policies in an effort to quell the mutiny.
In the latest phase, Mr Johnson revealed that a swathe of Covid rules are going, with the work from home order immediately axed.
Masks will also not be compulsory from next week, he said – in a move that was cheered by Tory MPs.
Trying to sweep away the blunders over Partygate, Mr Johnson said: ‘This government has got the big things right.’
No10 will have been relieved that no other Red Wallers immediately followed Mr Wakeford out of the door. Bishop Auckland MP Dehenna Davison, one of the ‘Pork Pie’ rebels, laughed off ‘bulls***’ suggestions she could switch to Labour or the Lib Dems.
In the Commons, Mr Davis told Mr Johnson he had spent weeks defending him from ‘angry constituents’, including by reminding them of the ‘successes of Brexit’.
He said: ‘I expect my leaders to shoulder the responsibility for the actions they take. Yesterday he did the opposite of that. So, I will remind him of a quotation which may be familiar to his ear: Leopold Amery to Neville Chamberlain.
‘You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. In the name of God, go.’
Amid gasps in the chamber, a seemingly shocked Mr Johnson replied: ‘I must say to him, I don’t know what he is talking about.
‘What I can tell him – I don’t know what quotation he is alluding to – what I can tell him is and I think have told this House repeatedly, I take full responsibility for everything done in this Government and throughout the pandemic.’
Tories said the double-blow during PMQs actually had the effect of helping to shore up Mr Johnson’s position
The day the Red Wall plot to oust Boris Johnson as Prime Minister fell apart
By Jason Groves, Political Editor for the Daily Mail
The defection of Tory MP Christian Wakeford was designed to finish Boris Johnson off.
Cruelly timed just minutes before Prime Minister’s Questions, the Tory turncoat hoped his betrayal would drive his fellow malcontents among the 2019 intake of MPs to dispatch a flood of no confidence letters – triggering a leadership contest.
Excitable members of the so-called ‘Pork Pie Plot’ of rebel Red Wall MPs had briefed sympathetic journalists that the PM would be facing a vote of no confidence by early afternoon – and 5pm at the latest. In the end, it did not happen.
Instead, by last night, the defection appeared to have had the opposite effect. Tory MPs said that wavering colleagues who had planned to send no confidence letters to the 1922 committee of backbench MPs now looked set to delay – at least until the publication next week of a report into the ‘Partygate’ controversy by Whitehall ethics chief Sue Gray. And with the momentum lost, the ‘pork pie putsch’ appeared to crumble to dust as quickly as it had materialised.
It had begun on Tuesday when around 20 of the plotters gathered in the Commons office of MP Alicia Kearns – whose Melton Mowbray constituency gave the plot its moniker – to discuss tactics for defenestrating their leader.
A secret ballot revealed that around half had already submitted letters of no confidence to Tory shop steward Sir Graham Brady.
The 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. Mr 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.
One ally of Mr Wakeford said the whips had overplayed their hand – and claimed the threat was the final straw in his decision to defect to Labour.
The move itself made for dramatic political theatre. Mr Wakeford was hissed and booed by Tory MPs as he entered the Commons chamber to take his place among his new Labour colleagues.
Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries seethed that Mr Wakeford had yet to realise that the Union Jack face mask he was wearing ‘is not welcome on that side of the House’. Sir Keir Starmer made the most of it, boasting that the first Tory-to-Labour defection for 15 years showed he was ‘incapable of offering the leadership and Government this country deserves’.
But the defection had a galvanising effect on the Tory benches.
Speaking afterwards, one Cabinet minister said: ‘In an odd way things have suddenly got better with Wakeford going. People forget how tribal politics is. When someone swaps to the other tribe you feel under attack and the internal attacks become secondary.
‘If they really thought it was going to finish the PM off it just shows how delusional some of them are.’ The plot appeared to have taken off in part because of a downbeat interview given by the PM the previous day, in which he appeared visibly upset and complained that no one had told him that a party in the No10 garden broke lockdown rules.
One Cabinet source said the Prime Minister’s show of contrition ‘may have played well with the public’ but ‘looked like weakness’ to some MPs. In another moment of high drama yesterday, former Brexit Secretary David Davis told Mr Johnson to his face to quit over the issue.
Borrowing from a 1940 speech by Conservative Leo Amery to Tory premier Neville Chamberlain, he said: ‘I expect my leaders to shoulder responsibility for the actions they take. Yesterday he did the opposite… in the name of God, go.’ Mr Davis is a big figure, but no longer has much of a following in Parliament. Conor Burns, a close ally of Mr Johnson, described Mr Davis as ‘a loner’.
A Cabinet minister said he appeared to be trying to fill the role of ‘father figure’ to the young plotters in the hope it might improve his own political prospects.
By early afternoon, a massive whipping operation was also beginning to bear fruit in public. Loyal members of the 2019 intake were wheeled out in front of the cameras to profess their loyalty to their leader.
Stuart Anderson, MP for Wolverhampton South West, said the Red Wallers were ‘not all rebels’. Stoke MP Jonathan Gullis claimed some rebel MPs were withdrawing their letters of no confidence – although he acknowledged he had not spoken to anyone who actually had.
Focus on the new intake is inevitable given their weight in numbers. The 107 MPs elected for the first time in 2019 account for almost a third of the parliamentary party.
Repeated lockdowns mean Tory whips have less of a hold over them. But they are not the PM’s only problem. On Tuesday night another group of plotters gathered at the Carlton Club, the original home of the Conservative Party.
Pork Pie plotters including Guy Sambrook, Chris Loder and Ben Spencer were spotted dining with older hands such as William Wragg and former chief whip Mark Harper, who have made no secret of their opposition to Mr Johnson.
But, amid farcical scenes, the plot was exposed after uber-loyalist Miss Dorries walked in to address a think-tank event in the same building. ‘They are idiots if they think the Carlton is a discreet place to hatch a plot,’ said one senior Tory, who suggested that Mr Harper is considering another leadership bid himself if he can help drive the Prime Minister from office.
‘He is pretty delusional about his abilities,’ the source added.
However, the publication next week of the Partygate inquiry by Whitehall ethics chief Sue Gray still appears to be a moment of high risk for the PM.
Several quieter MPs yesterday warned it could be the trigger for a leadership contest. One former minister said: ‘I haven’t put my letter in but I will do when Sue Gray’s report comes out unless it completely exonerates him – which it won’t.’
One member of Mr Johnson’s inner circle said the PM’s mood had brightened considerably after the events of yesterday and was ‘delighted’ by Mr Wakeford’s defection, believing it would give the warring Tory tribes a common enemy.
‘We’ve survived another day,’ the source said.
‘He was miserable at the weekend, telling people he was f*****. He’s more upbeat today.’
Mr Johnson remains in peril. But his enemies showed their lack of experience yesterday and lost valuable momentum. For the first time this week his allies are starting to dream that he might just escape.
Christian Wakeford’s defection letter to Boris Johnson
Dear Prime Minister,
I am writing to inform you of my decision to resign from the Conservative Party and apply to join the Labour Party.
From today I will be sitting as the Labour MP for Bury South because I have reached the conclusion that the best interests of my constituents are served by the programme put forward by Keir Starmer and his party.
I care passionately about the people of Bury South and I have concluded that the policies of the Conservative government that you lead are doing nothing to help the people of my constituency and indeed are only making the struggles they face on a daily basis worse.
Britain needs a government focused on tackling the cost of living crisis and providing a path out of the pandemic that protects living standards and defends the security of all. It needs a government that upholds the highest standards of integrity and probity in public life and sadly both you and the Conservative Party as a whole have shown themselves incapable of offering the leadership and government this country deserves.
Being elected as MP for Bury South was the proudest day of my life. I care passionately about the area and will always be grateful to those who have supported me. Today, however, I am in no doubt that they will be better served by my joining a party that genuinely has their interests at heart.
I have wrestled with my conscience for many months, and you will know that I have made my policy misgivings clear on many occasions in private and sometimes in public. I can no longer support a government that has shown itself consistently out of touch with the hard working people of Bury South and the country as a whole.
Under Keir Starmer, the Labour Party is back firmly in the centre of British politics, in touch with working people, and ready to provide an alternative government that this country can be proud of, and not embarrassed by.
My decision is about much more than your leadership and the disgraceful way you have conducted yourself in recent weeks. However, I don’t believe all politicians are the same and I do believe in the power of politics to be a force for good. So does Keir Starmer. He has shown that integrity in the way he has led his party on issues that matter to me, not least the vital challenge of combating anti-Semitism.
I will always put the people of Bury South first and will continue to speak out for the changes the area needs. Changes that can only be delivered by a Labour government with Keir Starmer.