British government accused of blackmailing MPs to keep PM Johnson in power

British PM Boris Johnson is facing pressure to step down over a series of scandals, including attending a party at his Downing Street office during a strict Covid-19 lockdown.
PHOTO: Reuters

LONDON - A senior Conservative lawmaker accused the British government on Thursday (Jan 20) of intimidating and attempting to "blackmail" lawmakers they suspect of wanting to force Prime Minister Boris Johnson out of power.

Mr Johnson, who won a large majority in 2019, is facing growing calls to step down over a series of scandals, including admitting he had attended a party at his Downing Street office at a time when Britain was under a strict Covid-19 lockdown.

Some younger lawmakers have spearheaded attempts to unseat Mr Johnson, but it was an attack by one of the party's longest-serving Conservatives that prompted gasps when he told the Prime Minister in Parliament, "In the name of God, go".

Mr Johnson, 57, has vowed to fight on, saying he would lead the Conservative Party into the next election and warning a lawmaker who defected to the main opposition Labour Party on Wednesday that he would win back his seat.

But in yet another blow to his shaky standing, Mr William Wragg, chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee which oversees constitutional issues and standards, accused the government of blackmail.

"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," Mr Wragg said in a statement before a meeting of the committee.

"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."

Mr Johnson condemns all forms of bullying and harassment, his spokesman said on Thursday. 

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While the spokesman declined to comment specifically on the allegations, when asked if the Prime Minister would "unequivocally condemn all forms of bullying and harassment", he said: "Yes".

The Prime Minister's office added that it was not aware of any evidence to support allegations that officials had sought to intimidate and blackmail politicians opposed to Mr Johnson.

"We are not aware of any evidence to support what are clearly serious allegations," the spokesman said. "If there is any evidence to support these claims, we would look at it very carefully."

The threshold for a confidence vote in Mr Johnson has yet to be breached, with several Conservative lawmakers saying they would hold off from calling for one until an investigation into the lockdown-breaking parties had been completed.

That investigation is being led by Ms Sue Gray, a civil servant.

The political editor for ITV said on Twitter that Ms Gray had found an e-mail from a senior official warning Mr Johnson's principle private secretary that a party on May 20 should not go ahead.

Mr Johnson has said he attended what he thought was a work event on May 20, 2020, to which staff had been told to "bring their own booze". Mr Johnson said on Tuesday  that nobody had told him the gathering was against Covid-19 rules.

Mr Wragg referred to the work of government whips, parliamentary enforcers whose job is to ensure Conservative lawmakers back government policy and stay in line.

The whips - a term with its roots in fox-hunting that dates back to 1742 - are widely known to use threats and sometimes offers of promotion to get lawmakers to support the party line.

"It is, of course, the duty of the government whips in office to secure the government's business in the House of Commons (Lower House of Parliament)," he said.

"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."