- Conservative MPs were ordered to attend parliament to vote on an unremarkable piece of UK legislation.
- But after attending prime minister’s questions, the order was dropped — leading some to suspect it was a ruse.
Some of Boris Johnson’s own MPs told that they were “dragged” into parliament today in a ruse to make it look like the UK prime minister is in full command of his party when in fact his grip over them is slipping.
Conservative backbenchers were strongly encouraged to attend the first session of prime minister’s questions (PMQs) of the year. MPs were also told that party whips had ordered a three-line whip on a vote at 10 p.m. on January 5. Such a measure is usually reserved for controversial votes, meaning they must vote unless there are exceptional circumstances.
It was the first time lawmakers have gathered since Johnson’s Conservatives lost the safe seat of North Shropshire, following a slew of headlines about senior Tories failing to follow pandemic rules they required the rest of the country to obey.
The constituency, previously represented by Owen Paterson and other Conservative MPs dating back to the 1830s, was lost to the Liberal Democrats in one of the biggest political upsets of living memory. Paterson was forced to resign after it was reported he breached parliamentary rules while acting as a paid lobbyist for the healthcare company Randox, which won roughly £490 million in no-bid contracts from the government in 2020.
Over the Christmas break, successive polls suggested Johnson’s popularity continued to decline amid further allegations that he and members of his government held parties in Downing Street in 2020 after asking the rest of the country to cancel their Christmas gatherings to stop the spread of coronavirus.
A three-line whip is suddenly dropped
While it is not unusual for a sitting government to order an en masse demonstration of solidarity, the fact that some Conservatives complained about it afterwards demonstrated the fragility of Johnson’s support among some members of his own party.
This afternoon saw standing-room-only at PMQs in the House of Commons as Johnson was challenged by Labour party deputy leader Angela Rayner on the rising cost of living. This was followed immediately afterwards by the prime minister giving an update on Covid-19 to a packed Commons chamber.
Shortly afterwards, the three-line whip on the otherwise unremarkable public sector pensions and judicial offices bill was dropped.
Angry MPs told there was no reason for the original order. One suggested it was because “they [Number 10] wanted us all here for PMQs and the statement”.
‘A sure sign of a PM in trouble’
But the Tory politician claimed the move had provoked suspicions among colleagues that they had been used. “Not a good one for morale at the start of the year,” he said.
One former minister also told Source the plan had backfired, saying: “They dragged us in just to sit behind him at PMQs … it has upset a number of the 2019 intake [new MPs who won seats in the last election]. The mood in the tea room is not good.”
Asked if they thought it was a ruse, one MP replied: “exactly that.”
Another added: “We were all strongly encouraged to be in for PMQs — a sure sign of a PM in trouble.”
Number 10 was contacted for a comment but did not immediately respond.