Rebel Conservative MPs are considering publishing secretly recorded "heated" conversations with the chief whip and text message linked to allegations of “blackmail” from the prime minister’s supporters, according to reports.
Boris Johnson insisted on Thursday he had “seen no evidence” to support the claim made by senior Conservative William Wragg that his critics were facing “intimidation” as part of an effort to prevent him being ousted from office.
But on Friday, The Times reported that Tory MPs looking to remove Mr Johnson have recorded conversations, as well as text messages to support the accusations - a claim that is likely to stir up more infighting among an increasingly divided Conservative party.
The paper claimed that one Tory MP said they were told by a whip “you’re done” when voting against the government last year. The Conservative rebels met on Thursday to discuss their next steps, The Times said.
Business secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, told ITV News the allegations over whips threatening to withhold funds were "very serious" and "should be investigated", but added he had not "seen any evidence" of that. In response to claims that Tory rebels had material to back up their allegations, Mr Kwarteng said: "If they've got the evidence, they should disclose what evidence they have so that we can get to the bottom of what's actually happened."
"Let's see the evidence" - business secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, tells ITV News Tory rebels who claim they have material that supports their allegations of blackmail should produce it
He added: "But I want to question this idea that the whips have authority over public spending, they don't. They simply don't have the authority to be able to withhold public funds in the way that's been alleged."
Mr Kwarteng admitted that whips do use "persuasion". "People are brought in, they're told there might be consequences in terms of their careers, in terms of how the party views them, because it's a team endeavour... but I've never heard any of the allegations with regard to public finances," he said.
Ben Howlett, who was a Tory MP for Bath from 2015 to 2017, said he had been threatened by a whip that funding for a local project would be withdrawn.
However, Mr Howlett said he knew this was "nonsense" and that whips cannot withhold funding and did not change his voting intentions.
Ben Howlett, former Tory MP for Bath between 2015 and 2017, describes a time when a whip threatened to withdraw funding for a local project
He slammed the whipping tactics used to keep MPs in line as "counter-productive".
"The prime minister should not be operating in this way if he's going to win support by the backbenchers.
"He needs to be reaching out, not sending his flunkies out to end up making really negative stories about them happen in the press."
Mr Howlett said he felt for Bury South MP Christian Wakeford, the MP who defected from the Tories to Labour over the Downing Street parties row. Mr Wakeford claimed he was threatened about the loss of a school in his constituency if he did not toe the line.
The blackmailing allegations come as ITV News revealed Sue Gray, the top civil servant investigating alleged law-breaking in Downing Street, found a email warning Mr Johnson's principal private secretary against holding a lockdown-breaching party in Number 10.
The email, sent by a senior official, told Mr Reynolds that the gathering “should be cancelled because it broke the rules”.
ITV News political editor, Robert Peston, said it leaves a "huge question" hanging over Mr Johnson's claim he hadn't been warned the May 20, 2020 party was against the rules and that he only attended because he thought it was a work event.
What is the significance of Sue Gray finding the email from the official warning against No 10 drinks party? Robert Peston explains
Mr Johnson has admitted attending the gathering in question for 25 minutes on May 20 2020, but insisted he believed it was a work event, and that he was not warned it would be against the rules.
The PM is now battling claims that his critics are facing “intimidation” which could amount to blackmail as part of an effort to keep him in post.
Mr Wragg said on Thursday he had received reports of conduct including “members of staff at 10 Downing Street, special advisers, government ministers and others encouraging the publication of stories in the press seeking to embarrass those who they suspect of lacking confidence in the Prime Minister”.
“The intimidation of a Member of Parliament is a serious matter. Reports of which I am aware would seem to constitute blackmail,” the chairman of the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee said.
Watch Will Wragg's damning claims:
“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.”
But Mr Johnson, on a visit to Taunton, said: “I’ve seen no evidence, heard no evidence, to support any of those allegations.”
He said he would “of course” look for evidence to support the claims, but No 10 suggested there were no plans to launch an investigation as demanded by Labour.
Mr Wragg is one of a handful of Tory backbenchers to have said publicly they have submitted a letter to the chairman of the backbench 1922 Committee, Sir Graham Brady, calling for a no-confidence vote in Mr Johnson’s leadership.
He said the conduct of the government whips’ office threatening to withdraw public funding from MPs’ constituencies may have breached the ministerial code.
The Metropolitan Police said they would consider any complaints made to officers.
“As with any such allegations, should a criminal offence be reported to the Met, it would be considered,” a spokesman said.
On the reports Ms Gray had found an email warning Mr Reynolds against holding a Downing Street drinks party, No 10 said it would not comment on the process of the ongoing investigation.