Boris Johnson (pictured jogging this morning) is tearing up his diary to woo mutinous MPs amid fears the Sue Gray report into Partygate will be worse than thought
Boris Johnson is set to woo mutinous MPs from Chequers amid fears the Sue Gray report into Partygate will be worse than thought.
The PM is spending the weekend at his country retreat after fended off an initial coup bid from so-called ‘Pork Pie’ plotters – but even supporters admit that his fate hangs on the conclusions of the top civil servant – expected next week.
Allies hope that Ms Gray will stop short of condemning Mr Johnson personally, despite him having attended a ‘BYOB’ bash in the Downing Street garden in May 2020. But the mood music in Whitehall is said to be ‘darkening’ as Ms Gray gathers more evidence.
The premier is due to have more talks with restive backbenchers as he braces for the next phase of his survival struggle from the lavish surroundings of Chequers – although it is not clear if any have been invited to join him.
Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford turned the screw this morning by accusing Mr Johnson of lifting Covid restrictions to get the scandal out of the headlines.
But Foreign Secretary Liz Truss – a potential successor – has lined up behind the premier, insisting he is doing an ‘excellent job’. And Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said he did not believe it is inevitable Mr Johnson will quit.
Meanwhile, on another front, rebel Tories considering publishing a secret recording and messages from government whips to back up allegations of brutal intimidation tactics.
Ms Truss, who is currently on a visit to Australia, dismissed the prospect of Mr Johnson quitting when grilled by reporters.
She replied: ‘The Prime Minister has my 100 per cent support. He is doing an excellent job. Britain was one of the first countries to roll out the Covid vaccine.
‘We’ve had a very successful booster programme. We’re now able to open up our economy again in Britain and we’ve got one of the fastest-growing economies in the G7.
‘And the reason that we are here in Australia is working with our very close partners, to advance freedom and democracy around the world, and to protect our country.
‘I want the Prime Minister to continue as long as possible in his job. He is doing a fantastic job. There is no leadership election.’
Asked if the PM would be meeting rebel backbenchers at the weekend, a No10 spokesman said: ‘The Prime Minister will be at Chequers this weekend…
‘As you know the Prime Minister has regular engagements with MPs.’
Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford (left) turned the screw this morning by accusing Mr Johnson of lifting Covid restrictions to get the scandal out of the headlines. But Liz Truss (right) said Mr Johnson is doing an ‘excellent job’
Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said he did not believe it is inevitable Mr Johnson will quit
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 (Pictured: Alleged ringleader Dehenna Davison)
Chief whip Mark Spencer (pictured) is accused of intimidating rebel MPs into supporting the PM
Mr Johnson and his wife Carrie pictured at the PM’s Chequers residence before Christmas
Partygate investigator Sue Gray ‘uncovers email warning Boris Johnson’s private secretary against holding drinks party at No 10 on May 20 2020 because it broke lockdown rules’
Partygate investigator Sue Gray has reportedly uncovered an email warning Boris Johnson’s private secretary against holding a drinks party at No 10 on May 20, 2020 because it broke lockdown rules.
Ms Gray, the senior official leading an inquiry into claims of rule-busting gatherings across Government, is said to have found the email warning Mr Johnson’s principal private secretary Martin Reynolds against holding the garden soiree.
The message, sent by a senior official, told Mr Reynolds that the gathering ‘should be cancelled because it broke the rules’, according to ITV News .
Mr Johnson has admitted attending the gathering in question for 25 minutes, but insisted he believed it was a work event, and that he was not warned it would be against the rules of England’s first lockdown.
ITV News Political Editor Robert Peston, who reported that Ms Gray had found the email, said the discovery leaves a ‘huge question’ hanging over Mr Johnson’s claim that he was not warned the party was against the rules.
Mr Peston said the senior official who sent the email told him that he ‘probably’ personally warned the Prime Minister against the party, ‘but I honestly can’t remember.’
Dominic Cummings, Mr Johnson’s former top aide, was the first to claim that the party went ahead with the prime minister and his wife in attendance.
The initial reports were confirmed when ITV news released a leaked email from Mr Reynolds inviting more than 100 staff to ‘make the most of lovely weather’ by attending ‘socially distanced drinks’ in the Downing Street garden.
In a blog post, Mr Cumming wrote that Mr Reynolds ‘checked with the PM whether the party should go ahead. The PM agreed it should’.
Whitehall sources said the Prime Minister had torn up his diary to talk with wobbling MPs ahead of the expected publication of the Gray report next week.
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.
The Tory rebels were branded ‘attention-seeking schoolchildren’ by cabinet ministers after falling short in a push to gather enough letters of no confidence to trigger a vote on Mr Johnson’s future.
They have been dubbed the ‘Pork Pie plotters, as a key meeting took place in the office of Alice Kearns, MP for Melton Mowbray.
But the government is facing a furious backlash at alleged dirty tricks by the whips, with claims MPs were threatened with funding being axed from their constituencies.
Mr Johnson’s allies have also been accused of smearing rebels by releasing unsubstantiated claims about their drinking habits and personal lives in the press. The claims have been denied by No 10.
According to the Times, the group of Tory rebels met yesterday 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.
‘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.’
In a round of interviews this morning, Mr Kwarteng said he does not believe the allegations of blackmail levelled against Tory party whips.
Speaking to Sky News, Mr Kwarteng said: ‘I’ve been an MP for 12 years now, and I’ve never heard of the kind of allegations that are being made.
‘Blackmail, the idea that somehow money is being withheld from communities that need it on account of the behaviour of the MPs, I’ve never heard of anything like that.
‘I find it strange because the whip’s office doesn’t actually have the power over spending in that way.’
He said the Government would take the allegations ‘seriously and we need to look to the bottom of it’, but he added: ‘I don’t think that this is happening.’
Mr Kwarteng said he had never been bullied by the whips, but suggested it might be because he was tall.
‘Generally, my whips were a lot shorter than I was over the years,’ he told LBC.
Mr Kwarteng also swiped at ‘turncoat’ Mr Wakeford, pointing out it is now his job to destabilise the government.
‘You’d have to ask Christian why he defected, or why he essentially turned coat and changed his political allegiance, that’s a matter for him,’ he said.
‘I don’t know what his motivations were, and as you’ll appreciate he’s a Labour MP now and, of course, part of his job is to try and discredit the Government.’
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.
‘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.’
William Wragg, chair of the Commons Public Administration Committee, said he had been told of ‘pressures and intimidation’ being used on politicians
A poll yesterday 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.
As Mr Johnson’s enemies seized on his woes, Labour’s Welsh First Minister jibed that he had ‘long since abandoned’ science when making Covid decisions.
Speaking to BBC Breakfast, Mr Drakeford – who has been heavily criticised for excessive restrictions in Wales – said: I don’t think there’s any doubt at all the UK Government has long abandoned any sense that it is following the science.
‘It is a government desperately mired in difficulties of its own making, and is forever on the lookout for a headline that will distract people’s attention from the awful mess that it finds itself in.’
When asked if he believed the differences between restrictions in the two countries would cause problems for the people of Wales, he replied: ‘People have had to manage those differences, right through the pandemic.’
Mr Drakeford continued: ‘My job and the job of my cabinet is to take the medical and scientific advice, we have to make the decisions that we think go on keeping Wales safe.’
MP for Bury South Christian Wakeford, who defected to Labour on Wednesday, 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 Mr 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.’
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
Mr Wakeford was welcomed by his new party leader Sir Keir Starmer in his parliamentary office last night
The official inquiry into Partygate, led by Whitehall ethics chief Sue Gray (pictured) is expected to be published next week