“At least three current candidates would be worse than Boris.”
The Tory civil war has begun.
On one level it will be hugely entertaining but from a national perspective very damaging.
Also, our local porngate saga continues:
Read in a separate EDW post: ‘Porn MP’ Neil Parish is ‘oversexed’, wife claims – but he says it’s just ‘healthy appetite’
Caroline Wheeler www.thetimes.co.uk
No sooner had Boris Johnson announced his resignation last week after a series of scandals rocked Downing Street than the fresh mud-slinging begun.
The bitter civil war engulfing the Conservatives looks set to deepen as the party braces for what is likely to become the dirtiest leadership campaign in history.
So divided is the party that at least two rival leadership campaign teams have passed the Labour Party a digital dossier containing a series of lurid allegations about their potential opponents. Last week tongues were set wagging when a prominent supporter of one of the frontrunners in the race was seen meeting a senior Labour official at the White Horse pub in Soho, central London.
The documents include a catalogue of claims about the likely runners and riders, including allegations about their private lives and financial arrangements, among them the use of tax dodges and loans. At least one private investigator has been hired to dig into some of the candidates’ financial arrangements. There are also claims of drug taking and the use of prostitutes.
A senior Tory party source said: “There are rumours being widely circulated about candidates getting involved in bondage, domination and sadomasochism, claims of inappropriate relationships and compromising explicit photographs that could be used as kompromat.
“It has even been claimed that one of the contenders requests that staff deliver their government papers to them while they are in the bath.”
The negative briefing has sunk to such depths that even the staff who work for candidates are being targeted. One aide is accused of regularly attending orgies, something that is alleged to have precluded them from receiving the highest level of security clearance.
Details of alleged extramarital affairs are also being widely shared with Labour by Tories desperate to discredit their opponents. Hostile briefings between the rival camps raises the prospect of blue-on-blue attacks escalating during the course of the contest.
Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s former aide, has already gone public with some of the claims about affairs between the leadership hopefuls and their special advisers, known as spads.
In a tweet posted on Friday, he wrote: “At least three current candidates would be worse than Boris. At least one is more insane than Truss, clearly unfit to be anywhere near nuclear codes. At least one is a spad shagger.”
He later tweeted: “Sorry, correction, I’m informed by Cabinet Office at least two spad shaggers . . . would be very Westminster for Boris to get the bullet cos of lies over sex/groping . . . only to be replaced by someone actually shagging their spad!”
Guto Harri, Johnson’s director of communications, has already been forced to deny that he has been briefing against Rishi Sunak’s campaign. He called the campaign team on Saturday morning to reassure them that he was not the source of hostile briefings against the former chancellor.
According to the Financial Times, Johnson’s allies aim to stop Sunak becoming leader and are accusing the former chancellor of treachery for triggering the prime minister’s premature exit. More than 50 Conservative MPs quit the government after Sunak and health secretary Sajid Javid resigned on Tuesday, leading Johnson to step down as Tory leader two days later. Close allies of Johnson said there was “huge anger” in Downing Street over Sunak’s resignation. One senior No 10 official called Sunak “a treacherous bastard”.
A government source said the skullduggery had reached new depths and was symptomatic of a party where scandal had become commonplace.
Last week it was claimed that Chris Pincher, the former deputy chief, whip, had groped two men in a private members’ club, triggering a chain of events that eventually led to the prime minister’s downfall. Pincher denies the claims. It was the latest sleaze scandal to hit the Conservative Party, which has now lost four MPs over allegations of sexual misconduct, with a fifth being investigated by the police for rape.
A senior MP said: “Everybody is desperate for this sordid period of our party’s history to end and for us to elect a new leader with bags of integrity who can draw a line under this disastrous episode. But that does mean that scandal now has a currency in the forthcoming leadership elections, which will likely make this the dirtiest campaign in history.”
Many of the candidates who have declared, including Sunak, have avoided the traditional campaign launches and interviews with leading media outlets. Sunak launched his campaign by posting a video on Twitter.
It is understood this is to avoid the candidates being asked too many difficult questions as they progress through the first stages of a swift campaign.
Penny Mordaunt, the trade minister, is expected to run on a “zero-tolerance” ticket promising to clean up politics. One source feared this could make her vulnerable to a dirty-tricks campaign.
“If she is going to make this a dividing line, surely her rivals will do whatever it takes to undermine her and make her look like a hypocrite,” they said.
Last night the briefing against her had already begun, with one Tory source claiming that Mordaunt had spent months priming allies for her resignation, only to remain in government and let others finish Johnson off. “Tom Hunt and Lee Anderson resigned from the government before she did. She’s still there,” they added.
“When it comes to the crux of it she has done absolutely nothing in government. There’s a reason she’s known as ‘Penny Dormant’.”
Meanwhile, Lord Goldsmith, a close ally of Johnson who has thrown his weight behind Nadhim Zahawi, has broken ranks to accuse Mordaunt of failing to heed concerns about the environment.
As international trade secretary, Goldsmith claimed that colleagues “couldn’t persuade her of the importance of nature”, adding: “You can do all the development you want, but lose the Congo Basin and hundreds of millions lose their rainfall and food and there’s an unprecedented refugee crisis.”
The Brexiteer candidates, who are all trying to win the support of the European Research Group and Common Sense group, are also turning on each other.
In one hostile briefing, Liz Truss, the foreign secretary, has been accused of not reading her own Northern Ireland Protocol Bill and staying quiet during key meetings. “It’s important to remember, when she is flashing her Brexit credentials, that Liz campaigned for ‘project fear’ and the emergency budget. She also supported Theresa May’s deal,” a source in a rival camp added.
There have also been claims that whips, who have been ordered to stay neutral, have been ringing around on behalf of candidates, including Ben Wallace, the defence secretary.
With the field wide open and the potential for more than a dozen candidates to run in the contest, the knock-out rounds, which could start as early as Tuesday, are likely to be particularly brutal.
Previously, the parliamentary stage of the contest has lasted for weeks, but it is likely the 1922 Committee of backbench Tory MPs will announce on Monday that the slate is to be whittled down to the final two by the time the Commons rises for the summer recess on Thursday, July 21.
One source close to the 1922 Committee said active discussions are under way to truncate the second stage of the process, when party members vote for their preferred candidate. This could last for just three weeks, meaning a new Conservative Party leader — and prime minister — will have been elected by mid-August.
A Tory MP said: “The candidates will only have a matter of days to make their mark. The gloves are going to have to come off pretty quickly.”
Candidates vying for support from the same wing of the party will be particularly eager to pick each other off in order to hoover up their rivals’ support and make it through to the final two.
Previously, candidates have been accused of lending others support in order to ensure they knock out their closest rival. In 2019, supporters of Michael Gove accused Johnson’s campaign team of “dirty tricks” after the former housing minister was narrowly eliminated in the battle for No 10.
In 2016, Theresa May’s aides are alleged to have drawn up a dirty dossier on Johnson at a time when he was considered her fiercest rival. It was not used because his campaign imploded. The document, which was seen by The Sunday Times, contained a string of allegations about Johnson’s sexual liaisons, quips from him about cocaine, and damning assessments of his character.
“If only we had taken more heed of that dossier,” said one aide. “Maybe we would not have got into this mess in the first place.”