Whips are responsible for party discipline and get their name from the 18th century when MPs spent more time fox hunting than legislating. A “whipper-in” was a huntsman’s assistant who kept the hounds from straying by driving them back with a whip into the main body of the pack.
But with the Prime Minister turning into the quarry over the Downing Street party revelations, the chief whip Mark Spencer, a farmer not adverse to riding with hounds, is understood to have ordered his team to do what was necessary to prevent a coup.
One strode up and angrily berated a rebel MP: “I can’t believe your disloyalty to the PM!”
The object of his ire, Andrew Bridgen. calmly responded: “I have a handwritten letter from Boris from 2016 when I was one of the 26 MPs to stick with him for his leadership bid after Michael Gove did the dirty on him.
“He said in that letter ‘I will never forget your loyalty’. Well since he became Prime Minister I have never been offered a job, my constituency has been denied the levelling up money and HS2 is still going to run through it.
“I think it is quite clear that he has forgotten my loyalty.”
Conservative MP Andrew Bridgen
Mr Bridgen is not an embittered Remainer but one of the Brexit spartans who held out against Theresa May’s compromise and paved the way for Boris Johnson to become leader.
He has been willing to do the hard yards of defending the government in sticky crises appearing on programs like Channel 4 News which are seen as anti-Tory.
“I don’t think Boris knows who his friends are,” Mr Bridgen ruminated afterwards.
“I’m not sure he has any real friends,” another Red Wall MP added. “The problem is that he just relies on a very small clique.”
The focus has fallen on his wife Carrie or “Carrie-Antoniette” as disgruntled MPs unkindly call her.
One MP noted: “Most of the people close to him at the moment are actually his wife’s friends. The very people he needs to kick out.”
The PM and his wife Carrie.
The demands since before Christmas for a clearout in Downing Street have largely been around friends of Ms Johnson’s but also “kids who get top jobs because their parents are donors.”
But even major donors to the Conservatives were bemused by the Prime Minister’s unwillingness to widen his circle.
One, who aided rebel MPs, noted: “It occurred to me it could unravel for the PM tomorrow (Wednesday) and I’ve been instrumental yet he has no idea who I am. Politics is a funny old thing. I think that’s one of his mistakes, he’s never got to know a broad sweep of those in the party, just his small clique.”
One party donor went to the Commons on Wednesday to try to help “stiffen the resolve of MPs who were wavering” from initiating a confidence vote.
With few friends and a loss of loyalty caused by disgust over the lockdown breaching parties, the Prime Minister’s allies resorted to desperate measures.
Two whips were sent to stand outside the office of the chairman of the 1922 Committee Sir Graham Brady.
For a vote of confidence to be triggered 54 plus MPs had to give Sir Graham their letters asking for one and the whips were there to stop them.
Other whips were sent to monitor the corridors of offices of MPs who were known rebels.
But MPs caught on and started to hand their letters to William Wragg, Sir Graham’s deputy on the 1922 committee. A box in his office would fill up and then he would personally take them to Sir Graham smiling at the whips as he passed.
Only Sir Graham knows precisely how many letters were handed in but it is believed more than 40 ended up in his special safe.
As the numbers mounted the whips adopted what one MP called “scorched earth” tactics.
Graham Brady, MP for Altrincham and Sale West
MPs have confirmed to the Sunday Express that they were recipients of threats about revelations on their private lives, withdrawing money from their constituencies and being deselected.
The sudden briefings to the press about heavy drinking by a popular Red Wall MP Dehenna Davison was seen as a “shameful” example of the whips’ approach.
One MP who was told on Wednesday morning that he would be deselected unless he withdrew his letter was Bury South’s Christian Wakeford.
Within hours just minutes before PMQs it leaked out that he had decided to defect to Labour.
One “saddened” friend of his said: “He felt he had no choice. He had nothing to lose if he was going to be deselected anyway.”
“It was a terrible miscalculation by the whips,” another Tory MP added.
Christian Wakeford sitting on the opposition benches during Prime Minister’s Questions.
It sparked speculation that a leadership contest was imminent.
Already staff in CCHQ had been starting to prepare for a leadership contest and were updating the membership list.
With Wakeford scuttling across the Commons floor to the Labour benches, the Sunday Express received a text from a leadership team suggesting a meeting about their candidate.
Meanwhile, former Defence Secretary Penny Mordaunt, who once worked as a magician’s assistant and is today a trade minister, is now openly referred to as the “dark horse candidate”.
But the Wakeford defection proved to be the turning point that may have saved Mr Johnson.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer expected the defection would be a total disaster for Mr Johnson – the equivalent of yet another by-election loss that would allow the Labour leader to portray himself as the man who landed a knock-out blow on the PM.
Boris Johnson during Prime Minister’s Questions.
Ex-Brexit Secretary David Davis would have similar thoughts when he rose to his feet in the chamber and called on the Prime Minister to go. He might have failed in his 2005 attempt to be elected Tory leader, but at least he could earn a place in history by swinging the axe at the present one.
But in the bizarre world of Westminster, Mr Johnson’s share price shot up.
A buoyant former minister thought these two attacks had boosted the Prime Minister’s chances of survival.
“It means that if you think the same as Wakeford people will think you’re a covert Labour supporter,” they said.
Likewise, the ex-minister expected that Mr Davis’s grandstanding intervention will have put off many Conservative MPs.
A veteran Tory also sensed that the shock of Mr Wakeford joining Labour ranks had strengthened Conservative tribalism.
They dismissed “Mr Wokeford” and many of the plotters as “lightweight,” stressing that it was premature to try and oust him before top civil servant Sue Gray delivered the findings.
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“I’m not a Boris fan to put it mildly but I believe in fair play and due process and I think we should wait for the report,” one said.
Another issue seemed to have rescued him in that opponents of lockdown were delighted with his statement after PMQs announcing an end to covid restrictions and promising to protect liberty in the future.
“He’s got the big decision right and a different leader might take us back into lockdowns,” one MP noted.
There was also the big and vexing question of who should replace Mr Johnson if he went.
A prominent backbencher said: “I’m not convinced those in the cabinet are worthy of my support.”
Labour MPs bobbed around Parliament expressing a clear hope that other Tories who are in danger of losing their seats would join the party of Attlee and Bevan.
One frontbencher noted: “A lot of them are in a very bad place.”
“I’m hearing all sorts of rumours,” said another Labour MP. But Labour hopes were dashed with no other MP crossing the floor.
By Wednesday night the plot appeared to have failed with one or two hopeful that a need to give the Prime Minister 12 hours notice had merely delayed an announcement by Sir Graham to 8am on Thursday.
Thursday 8am came and went with not a word from the 1922 committee. The Prime Minister had survived – but at what cost?
At 10am Mr Wragg, who had been at the heart of the plot, used his position as chairman of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, to call out the behaviour of the whips’ brutal tactics.
Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle later echoed his urging of MPs to report blackmail and threats to the police.
But Mr Johnson denied the allegations and shortly after a number of Tory backbenchers started Tweeting to assure the world they had never been threatened.
“The whips are offering to clear the slate for MPs who have voted against the Government,” one Tory MP claimed.
One rebel leader said: “We have done all we can. A lot of colleagues are in a wait and see mood for next week.”
But there was also a sense that the Prime Minister may have only won a pyrrhic victory.
“It’s like Napoleon marching in Moscow,” said one MP. “He cannot hold his position because he has cut off his own support.
“The slash and burn tactics used by the whips have erased any loyalty a lot of MPs felt for him.”
Another added: “He has poisoned the well of support.”