UK Government Accused of ‘Blackmail’ to Keep Scandal-Plagued Johnson in Power

UK Government Accused of ‘Blackmail’ to Keep Scandal-Plagued Johnson in Power

LONDON, Jan 20 (Reuters)

A senior Conservative lawmaker accused the British government on Thursday of intimidating and attempting to “blackmail” those lawmakers they suspect of wanting to force Prime Minister Boris Johnson out of power.

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 Conservative lawmakers have spearheaded attempts to unseat their leader and opposition leaders have demanded he resign. The heat was turned up further in parliament on Wednesday when one of the party’s longest-serving representatives told the prime minister in parliament “In the name of God, go.”

Johnson, 57, has vowed to fight on, saying he would lead the Conservative Party into the next election.

But in yet another blow to his shaky standing, William Wragg, chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, 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,” 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.”

In response, Johnson told broadcasters he had “seen no evidence, heard no evidence to support any of those allegations”, echoing an earlier statement from his office which said if there was evidence, the allegations would be looked at.

Waiting for Party Probe

Christian Wakeford, a lawmaker who defected from the Conservatives to Labour this week, said the government had threatened to withhold funding for a new school in part of his constituency if he refused to vote with the government.

“I was threatened that I would not get the school for Radcliffe if I didn’t vote in one particular way,” Wakeford told the BBC.

“This is a town that has not had a high school for the best part of 10 years and how do you feel when holding back the regeneration of a town for a vote, it didn’t sit comfortably.”

Anger is running high, but so far the threshold for a confidence vote in Johnson has yet to be breached, with several Conservative lawmakers saying they would wait until an investigation into the parties had been completed.

That probe is being led by Sue Gray, a civil servant. The political editor for ITV said on Twitter that Gray had found an email from a senior official warning Johnson’s principle private secretary that a party on May 20, 2020, should not go ahead.

Johnson has said he attended what he thought was a work event on that day, to which staff had been told to “bring their own booze”. Johnson said on Tuesday nobody had told him the gathering was against COVID rules.

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

“It is of course the duty of the government whips 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.”

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.

But there are rules the whips must adhere to. The parliamentary speaker said: “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 threats.”