(CN) — Conservative whips in the United Kingdom’s House of Commons have come under intense scrutiny in their handling of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s ongoing leadership crisis, after several members of parliament accused them of blackmail.
In a high-profile intervention on Thursday, senior Conservative MP William Wragg, chair of the Public Affairs Committee, asserted that whips had threatened to withdraw public investment from the constituencies of parliamentarians thought to be unsupportive of the beleaguered prime minister.
Speaking in an ad hoc press conference, Wragg said: “Intimidation of members 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.”
In a statement to the House of Commons, Speaker Lindsay Hoyle added that Conservative, or Tory, whips “are not above criminal law.”
“While the whipping system is long established, it is of course a contempt to obstruct members in the discharge of their duty, or to attempt to intimidate a member in their parliamentary conduct by threat," he said.
On Friday, a government spokesperson said the claims would not be investigated as there was no evidence to support them. The government’s position is at odds with a previous statement made by U.K. Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng, who told Sky News that the allegations warranted further inquiry.
Johnson is facing yet another week of intense public and parliamentary pressure to resign, following revelations of multiple parties held at his residence in Downing Street in apparent defiance of coronavirus restrictions. The prime minister has admitted being in attendance for one of the events, but denies being aware that the event could constitute a breach of the government's own rules on social gatherings.
The sense of government crisis was intensified on Wednesday after a Conservative MP defected to the opposition Labour Party, citing the “indefensible” position of Johnson. An MP crossing the floor from the Conservatives to Labour is a rare event in U.K. politics, having last occurred back in 2007.
The defecting MP, Christian Wakefield, added substance to the blackmail allegations on Thursday.
“I was threatened that I would not get a school for Radcliffe if I didn’t vote in one particular way. This is a town that has not had a high school for the best part of 10 years, and how would you feel when holding back the regeneration of a town for a vote?" he said. "It didn’t sit comfortably and that was really me starting to question my place and where I was.”
A former Tory MP, Ben Howlett, has added further weight to the allegations, telling the BBC that whips had threatened to withhold money for an infrastructure project in his constituency “to make sure I fell into line.”
The claims have drawn attention to the increasing use of pork-barrelling by the government to discipline parliamentarians – not traditionally a common tactic in U.K. politics.
Speaking to Sky News, the former Conservative Attorney General Dominic Grieve was critical of the culture of parliamentary discipline that has developed under the Johnson government, saying: “Of course, the whips are going to arm-twist. They are going to say to people, if you aren’t loyal you won’t be promoted within the party, your chances of ministerial office won’t be good. They will appeal to people’s sense of loyalty as well.”
“But to stray into the path of saying they are going to regulate government funds... so if you don’t conform to the government’s view and you don’t support the prime minister, you won’t get funds for projects in your constituencies, is an outrageous act," Grieve said.