‘Shocking stuff’: Pressure on MPs over sleaze vote could be criminal, says campaigning law group
Boris Johnson is facing legal action over reported threats to withhold “levelling up” cash from the constituencies of Conservative MPs who refused to back his botched attempt to help an ally avoid punishment for sleaze.
In the wake of this month’s Commons vote on the Owen Paterson case, there were reports of backbench Tories being warned by whips that their areas would lose government funding if they failed to back the prime minister.
The Good Law Project described the alleged threats at the act of “mobsters”, and wrote a letter to levelling up secretary Michael Gove demanding the release of any internal communications, texts or emails relating to them.
In a letter before action, the campaigning legal group – which has also taken cases over alleged misconduct in the award of PPE contracts to Tory contacts – warned Mr Gove that it was ready to go to court.
In a statement announcing its move, the GLP described the allegations of financial pressure on MPs as “shocking stuff” which had not been denied by ministers.
“Not only does it undermine parliament and weaken MPs’ independence, if true, the allegations are in the realms of criminal offence,” said the group.
“Threatening to cut off funding for local communities to force MPs to vote to save a disgraced MP also reveals the truth behind what the government likes to style as ‘levelling up’.
“As always, it’s people from hard-up communities who end up paying the price.”
The Project said it was challenging Mr Gove to deny that the alleged conduct happened and to stop future threats of this kind.
“The reports suggest a very serious misuse of public money, in the realms of criminal conduct, by or for the prime minister,” said the statement. “We will not stand by and watch.”
Mr Johnson won the 3 November vote by 250 to 232, but his majority was much reduced by dozens of abstentions, as well as 13 rebels who voted against.
A furious backlash forced him into a humiliating U-turn the following morning, and he later admitted he had “crashed the car into a ditch”.
Many Tories, particularly younger MPs and those from Red Wall seats in the North and Midlands, complained at being dragooned into unwillingly supporting a colleague who had been found guilty by the Commons Standards Committee of breaching parliamentary rules by lobbying on behalf of companies paying him more than £100,000 a year.
One backbencher was reported as saying MPs were told “they would lose funding for their constituency” if they failed to vote with the PM.
Paterson later resigned as an MP, avoiding the 30-day suspension recommended by the committee and triggering a by-election in his North Shropshire seat.
There was no immediate response from Mr Gove’s Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to The Independent’s request for a comment.