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U.K. lawmaker says Johnson critics face government ‘blackmail’

UPDATED: Thu., Jan. 20, 2022

By Jill Lawless Associated Press

LONDON — A lawmaker from Britain’s governing Conservatives accused the government on Thursday of blackmailing opponents of Prime Minister Boris Johnson, as the party’s internal rifts over its beleaguered leader deepened.

William Wragg, a Conservative member of Parliament, said legislators calling for a challenge to Johnson’s leadership have faced “intimidation,” and urged them to contact the police.

Wragg accused Johnson’s staff, government ministers and others of “encouraging the publication of stories in the press seeking to embarrass those they suspect of lacking confidence in the prime minister.” He also alleged that rebellious lawmakers had been threatened with a loss of public funding for their constituencies.

Wragg told a parliamentary committee session that such actions “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 Metropolitan Police.”

Johnson brushed aside the blackmail claim as he visited a medical diagnostics center in southwest England on Thursday.

“I’ve seen no evidence to support any of those allegations,” he said, though he added that he would “of course” look into it.

Whips, the officials responsible for maintaining discipline in Britain’s political parties, have long deployed persuasion to keep lawmakers in line, and have sometimes been accused of crossing a line and using threats.

Christian Wakeford, a lawmaker who defected from the Conservatives to the opposition Labour Party on Wednesday, said he was told he would not get a new high school for his constituency “if I did not vote in one particular way.”

He said the threat of “holding back regeneration of a town for a vote” had made him start to “question my place” in the Conservative Party,

The allegations are the latest outburst in a Conservative battle over Johnson’s future, sparked by claims of lockdown-breaching parties by the prime minister’s staff during the pandemic.

Wragg is one of a handful of Tory lawmakers openly calling for Johnson to face a no-confidence vote over the “partygate” scandal, which centers on allegations that Johnson and his staff broke restrictions the government imposed on the country to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

Senior civil servant Sue Gray is investigating claims that government staff held late-night soirees, boozy parties and “wine time Fridays” while Britain was under coronavirus restrictions in 2020 and 2021.

Johnson has apologized for attending a “bring your own booze” gathering in the garden of his Downing Street offices in May 2020, but said he had considered the party a work gathering that fell within the rules.

He has urged critics to wait for Gray’s report, which is expected to be published next week.

Johnson and his supporters hope a defiant performance at Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons on Wednesday, combined with anger at the defection of a Conservative lawmaker to the opposition Labour Party, has helped dissuade party legislators from trying to topple the prime minister.

“I think people have recognized that, actually, this constant navel-gazing and internal debating is only to the advantage of our political opponents,” Conservative lawmaker Andrew Percy told the BBC.

But David Davis, a former Cabinet minister who in Parliament on Wednesday dramatically urged Johnson to “In the name of God, go,” said any reprieve was likely temporary.

“The party is going to have to make a decision or we face dying a death of 1,000 cuts,” he told the Daily Telegraph.

Steve Baker, leader of a group of hardline pro-Brexit Tories who formerly backed Johnson, said the party was in a “sorry situation.”

“We didn’t make Boris Johnson prime minister for his meticulous grasp of tedious rules but this is appalling and the public are rightly furious,” he told the BBC. “At the moment I’m afraid it does look like checkmate but whether he can save himself, we’ll see.”

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