Conservative whips: bribes, bullying and blackmail

South-west Conservative Whips: Michael Tomlinson, Scott Mann and Steve Double. Meme by Sadie Parker

William Wragg, Chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs (PACA) Select Committee, made an extraordinary intervention at the latest meeting of the parliamentary body that scrutinises, amongst other things, the Civil Service. He began the meeting by reading a statement about the whips bribing, bullying, and even blackmailing Tory MPs to withdraw their letters to the 1922 Committee. As it happens, Hazel Grove’s arch-Brexiter MP is also the Deputy Chair of that powerful committee, the duties of which include (but are not limited to) overseeing votes of no confidence in the Conservative Party leader and leadership challenges.

Christian Wakeford, the Bury South MP who has recently defected to Labour, then confirmed that he has been blackmailed. To be specific, he was blackmailed to vote a certain way or lose investment in a much-needed high school for Radcliffe, an area of his constituency that has been without a high school for more than seven years now (since David Cameron was prime minister). “Holding back regeneration of a town for a vote – it didn’t sit comfortably,” he said. The vote in question was for free school meal vouchers for less well-off children during the school holidays, so that they would be sure to get one square meal a day.

Paul Goodman, a former MP and the editor of ConservativeHome, an online publication, says there was no reason to doubt William Wragg. He agrees with Wragg that a whip who in effect says, “vote with us, or kiss goodbye to…” some project or other they’d been promised is indeed breaking the ministerial code. Claims of this nature first began to surface when Robert Jenrick, the poster-boy for Tory corruption, was Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government. Indeed, West Country Voices wrote about the Towns Fund being allocated to Tory marginals rather than the most deprived towns back in September 2020. 

These latest allegations have lobbed a metaphorical grenade into Boris Johnson’s ranks in the Party’s battle to prise the current prime minister out of Number ten Downing Street before he sullies the office any further. The South-West has a particular interest in this battle, because three of the handful of MPs defending the whips’ behaviour represent the region. These are Totnes MP Anthony Mangnall (is there ever a controversy he’s not on the wrong side of?), Somerton and Frome MP David Warburton and Bournemouth West MP Conor Burns. In addition, two of our MPs, Mid-Dorset North Poole MP Michael Tomlinson and St Austell and Truro MP Steve Double are government whips, while North Cornwall MP Scott Mann is an assistant government whip.

Reactions have ranged from “both sides” do it, to trivialising it, to mocking MPs for not being able to withstand the rough and tumble of “whipping”, to “I’ll file that under ‘didn’t happen’”, to “what’s he got to hide, that he’s so worried about blackmail?!”. The Secretary for Culture (War) Nadine Dorries did the media round to accuse Wragg of being “an attention seeker”, which was rich from someone who once absented herself from parliament without permission to appear on “I’m a celebrity…” and ate an ostrich anus for the cameras.

Boris Johnson Tribute Act, Michael Fabricant, developed a bad case of Twitter incontinence and flooded the platform with tweets which either professed undying loyalty to Boris Johnson or denigrated Wragg. Even blasts from the past like former Tory MP Sir Nicholas Soames waded in at the poppycock end of the argument.

“It never happened to me!” David Warburton, Anthony Mangnall and Conor Burns. Meme by Sadie Parker

In the South-West, Anthony Mangnall led the charge on social media. He went for the “it hasn’t happened to me, therefore it hasn’t ever happened” logical fallacy. That’s right, Anthony, it didn’t and wouldn’t happen to you, because you are happy to back a man who is corrupt, callous and capricious, and lacking in the necessary qualities to lead this great country. Your intervention is therefore moot. It has only happened to those whom the whips suspect of intending to send a letter to the 1922 Committee to call for a vote of no confidence in Boris Johnson. A pair of whips were reportedly stationed outside Sir Graham Brady’s office at one point to prevent the delivery of said letters. It’s all gone very public schoolboy, hasn’t it?

David Warburton quote-tweeted Mangnall, essentially repeating the misconception that an individual’s experience is representative of all possible experiences. This was then asserted over the airwaves by Conor Burns, who appeared on the Eddie Mair Show on LBC to defend his boss and BFF. He used the identical expression that Johnson and Warburton had used, that he “didn’t recognise” what Wragg had said. Johnson failed to recognise being at a party when he was at one, so it’s hardly the most convincing of defences. Still, that was the hill Burns chose to die on, live on LBC. A foolish decision, as it turned out, because in Eddie Mair, he was up against a journalist who does not suffer specious political arguments gladly. Mair easily dispensed with the “… based on my experience, based on eleven years in the House of Commons” defense. Unfortunately for Burns, that was the only counter-argument he had, peppered with vehement exclamations of “I’m telling you…” Mair 1, Burns 0.

There are two possible routes to blackmail. Either the whips hold “kompromat” which they threaten to make public if the MP does not comply, or they threaten to take a away a previously agreed boon to the MP’s constituency. The leaked list of “Tory sex-pests” in 2019 suggests that the use of kompromat to enforce party discipline does take place. Suddenly, the knighthood for Gavin Williamson, who failed miserably on several counts as Education Secretary but who reputedly knows where all the bodies are buried, makes sense. It’s interesting that both Conor Burns and William Wragg are on that sex-pest list. Why is Burns so willing to abase himself for a prime minister who describes men of his and Wragg’s sexual persuasion as “tank-topped bum boys”?

Although use of kompromat to intimidate an MP would be against the ministerial code, the public might merely regard it as a question of “pride and prurience”. It is the second form of blackmail that is most likely to upset constituents — knowing that an MP risks losing a much-needed investment in a school, hospital or other project in their area if he or she votes against a monstrous piece of legislation government wishes to see on the statute books. Or even, as in the free school meals debacle, yielding to compassion and voting for an Opposition Day motion that hurts the prime minister’s pride. (Yes, Boris Johnson was happy for kids to go without a square meal during the school holidays because he hated ceding the moral high ground to footballer Marcus Rashford.)

Conor Burns ended his interview with Eddie Mair remarking that if Wragg had any evidence to back up what he’s saying, he is welcome to bring it forward. Hey presto! The day after his LBC interview, The Times revealed that there is a secret recording of just such a meeting with a whip, plus text messages that prove what Wragg is saying to be true. Conor Burns should be careful what he wishes for. Unlike infractions of covid laws, blackmail is something that the Met can’t ignore, even if it happened “retrospectively”, ( ie in the past, where the Met have said they don’t investigate crimes…).

Wragg has been invited to discuss the allegations with a senior police officer. Clearly, there’s more to come from this story, but in the meantime, we hope nobody will be hoodwinked by the “I don’t recognise that” or “it hasn’t happened to me, so hasn’t ever happened” sham defences.