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Tories accused of blackmail as Johnson government crumbles

Members of parliament enforcing party discipline are accused of using underhand tactics to silence opposition to the prime minister, as the ruling Conservative Party splits into pro- and anti-Boris Johnson factions.

(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.

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The allegations come amid a last-ditch effort by ministers loyal to Johnson to prevent a leadership challenge and hold the Conservative Party together.

Details of a government strategy to save the prime minister, dubbed “Operation Red Meat," were leaked to the press earlier this week. The strategy involved policy announcements designed to appease the core right-wing base of Johnson’s electoral coalition. These included the scrapping of the BBC’s public funding model – leaving the state broadcaster with an uncertain future – and the deployment of the military to the borders, ostensibly to respond to the arrival of cross-channel migrants.

But the announcements appear to have done little to shift disastrous opinion polling for the government. The Labour Party have opened up a 14-point lead over the Conservatives – their biggest lead in almost a decade – while Johnson’s approval rating has collapsed to minus 42%, meaning 22% approve and 64% disapprove. No major party leader has previously recovered from such poor personal ratings. In addition, polling suggests that two-thirds of British voters believe that Johnson should resign.

The indignant public mood has fostered a mutinous atmosphere inside the parliamentary Conservative Party. On Wednesday, veteran Tory and former Brexit Secretary David Davis called for Johnson’s resignation during another raucous session of Prime Minster's Questions in the House of Commons. Paraphrasing Oliver Cromwell, Davis told the PM: “You have sat there too long for all the good you have done. In the name of God – just go!”

On the same day, many of the 2019 class of MPs, upon whom the government is reliant for their parliamentary majority, attempted to oust the prime minister in a failed coup labeled the “pork pie plot” by British tabloids. Johnson was reported as being on the verge of tears as he pleaded with the rebellious MPs for their support. The government has denied the reports.

Under Conservative Party rules, a vote of no confidence in the leadership is triggered once 15% of Conservative MP’s submit letters of no confidence to Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the backbench 1922 Committee. There has been speculation that the requisite number of letters may be reached throughout the week. It is likely, however, that most MPs are waiting on the outcome of an internal investigation into the Downing Street parties, which is due to be reported early next week.

If Johnson is found to have misled parliament regarding his awareness of the parties, then his position would almost certainly become untenable.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak is the clear favorite to succeed Johnson, with his public approval ratings far exceeding other contenders, such as Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and Housing Secretary Michael Gove. Sunak has given the prime minister lukewarm support during the crisis, and abruptly walked out of an interview this week when asked if he still backed the PM. However, much depends on exactly when Sunak or others are prepared to throw their hat into the ring.

Though leadership challengers had hoped to wait to strike until after May’s local elections – the outcome of which are expected to be disastrous for the Conservatives – it is becoming increasingly clear that the issue of Johnson’s leadership is damaging the party’s long-term popularity, and dominating the country’s governance.

If ousted in the coming weeks or months, Johnson’s tenure as prime minister would be the shortest in more than 50 years. The allegations of blackmail may simply add to the sense of a government that is disunited and in freefall. But for a man whose childhood ambition was famously to be “world king,” Johnson is unlikely to go down without a fight.

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