Boris Johnson should purge whips to retain power: sources
- Johnson expected to make changes to his office of whips – MPs who enforce discipline – sources said.
- MPs described an erratic operation that damaged relations between Downing Street and backbench MPs.
- A former minister described the expected changes as “the last gasping breaths”.
Boris Johnson is set to ‘purge’ his desk of whips as part of the latest push to reset his relationship with his MPs and save his career, sources have told Insider.
Whips are the MPs tasked by party leaders with managing discipline within the ranks of MPs and ensuring that they support party goals.
Mark Spencer, the chief whip, has been facing calls to resign since he tried to save Owen Paterson from a suspension because of violation of lobbying rules.
Spencer “now thinks he’s about to go,” a senior Tory MP told Insider. The source, and others in this article, spoke on condition of anonymity to candidly discuss the turmoil within the Conservative Party.
Christopher Pincher, currently housing minister, is one of the names of the executive to take over. Jake Berry, a former cabinet minister and former Johnson ally, has also been linked to the post.
MPs have long complained about their relationship with the office of whips under Spencer, which has become increasingly erratic in recent months, driving the wedge between Downing Street and backbench MPs.
A lack of engagement with MPs left the government ‘blindsided’ in June by an attempt by rebel Tory MPs to reverse cuts to the UK’s international aid budget.
Complaints from backbench MPs have been ignored on controversial issues such as providing free meals in schools and rules to regulate the discharge of wastewater into the water system, say several sources.
A former minister said the only interaction between the whips and many MPs was a weekly text message asking ‘will you support the government on all divisions in next week’s business Y/N’.
Another former minister said: ‘We thought they had learned from the free school meals and the rivers, but it’s so chaotic. You have to wonder why.’
A “purge” was planned as soon as possible, another backbencher told Insider. The MP said the existing ‘inefficient’ operation had become ‘far too complacent’,
Pincher – who was seen “texting [Johnson aide] Ben Gascoigne on “who the media could count on” this week – was a deputy chief whip under Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May.
He is a “no frills character” who would restore discipline, says one MP.
After this week’s drama, one added, “Mark has lost control.”
The planned reshuffle predates explosive claims by backbench MP William Wragg, who said MPs had been “pressured and intimidated” over the prospect of a no-confidence vote against Johnson, according to Insider sources.
Wragg, who is deputy chairman of the 1922 executive, claimed the whips had threatened to “withdraw investments” in MPs’ constituencies, a move which “would appear to constitute blackmail”.
Nadine Dorries, Culture Secretary and one of Johnson’s most vocal allies, called the ‘attention-seeking behavior’ and argued that ‘the whips have no say’ in spending of the government.
Christian Wakeford, the MP for Bury South who defected to Labor on Wednesday, said later he had indeed been ‘threatened’ with funding withdrawal.
Several MPs corroborated his claims, saying the whips had shifted into high gear to protect the Prime Minister.
The tactics were to tell new MPs that their names would be made public if they sent letters of no confidence, even though the process is secret. Others, sources said, were ominously warned of incriminating photos of them at gatherings on parliamentary grounds while socializing was still banned.
A former minister told Insider the whips were “intimidating” and “vicious”, threatening MPs who criticize Johnson with funding cuts or the prospect of being replaced as the Tory candidate in their seat in the next election.
Others, the former minister said, were threatened by the prospect of negative stories about them being passed on to newspapers.
A Downing Street spokesperson told Insider Spencer was “doing a brilliant job” and said Johnson trusted her completely.
Some Tories Insider spoken to doubted changes to the whips office would be enough to save Johnson.
Another plan being discussed, an early elimination of officials involved in an upcoming official report on lockdown-breaking parties, was also treated with derision.
A senior Tory official said: ‘It’s rearranging the sunbeds – the ship is sinking.’
Another said it was the administration’s “death blow”, adding: “The last breaths are gasping.”