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Political wisdom says Ukraine has saved Boris Johnson’s skin – a global crisis so grave that it looks self-indulgent to question his leadership. But the really successful operation to rescue the prime minister started long before Russia’s war, and much closer to home
21 February 2022
14 March 2022
Why this story?
Two months ago, the mainstream view at Westminster was that Boris Johnson was finished. That’s no longer the assumption. Now, the opinion-makers say, the war in Ukraine has made the prime minister so bullet-proof that he can even survive the fixed-penalty fine for breaking his own Covid rules which might land on his desk soon.
Ukraine has certainly helped Boris Johnson’s position. But if the political weather has changed it’s because people close to him have changed it, not because a chill wind has blown in from the east. After a week in mid-January when everything seemed lost, and the management of the Conservative party which is meant to protect its leader seemed terminally ineffective, an operation was put in place to save him – a shadow whipping operation as it became known. It deployed some of the usual tactics of the Whips, arm-twisting and threats about future career prospects, but it went further. It rewarded outspoken disloyalty towards the prime minister from backbench MPs with jobs and promises of funding. And it persuaded enough MPs to change their minds about a vote of no confidence in Boris Johnson to remove the immediate threat to him.
The shadow whipping operation at Westminster is something new, and it marks a shift in British politics. It’s only a set of conventions, not formal rules, which have governed how far a prime minister would go in using the power of political patronage for his own advantage. But now those conventions have been breached, where do the limits lie on Number 10’s ability to dispense favours in return for loyalty?
Duncan Baker’s correspondence (read by Lewis Vickers): “It is indefensible and I have made my thoughts very clear internally. For those at the heart of government to show such a total lack of empathy and awareness to the rules is wholly irresponsible.
Lara Spirit, narrating: This is a letter from a Conservative MP called Duncan Baker to one of his constituents. That’s not his voice, but you can hear he’s not pulling any punches.
It’s about the Downing Street parties. And the constituent who’s written to Duncan Baker has obviously asked if he’s sent in a letter to Sir Graham Brady – which is what MPs have to do if they want a vote of no confidence in Boris Johnson. It looks as if Duncan’s not playing ball.
Lewis Vickers reading out Duncan Baker’s correspondence: I hope you will respect my decision to not publicly be telling anybody whether I have or have not written to Sir Graham Brady at this stage – even my wife will not know that information!
Lara Spirit, narrating: And then – and this is the bit that bites:
Lewis Vickers reading out Duncan Baker’s correspondence: But as you have seen from my previous actions, I am not a person who is appalled and takes no action.”
Lara Spirit, narrating: So Duncan Baker’s not a man who sits on his hands if something ‘indefensible’ has happened. He might not explicitly say he’ll be handing in a letter, but his feelings on the prime minister couldn’t be clearer.
So here’s a mystery – and it’s the mystery I’m going to try to solve in this podcast – how does an MP who says all that about Boris Johnson end up taking a job in government just a few weeks later?
If I could understand that – and I think I do now – then maybe I could understand how the prime minister survived a week in Westminster when it looked like he came as close as he ever did to losing his position.
He got through his darkest hour, and now it looks as if the dawn might be here for Boris Johnson.
I’m Lara Spirit. And you’re listening to the Slow Newscast.
So…Duncan Baker – the MP for North Norfolk.
The reason I’m interested in Duncan is this. He went from attending a meeting where disgruntled Conservative MPs plotted to get rid of the prime minister – to accepting a job from him. And then supporting him without question.
I’m interested in him because he changed my mind about a story. One that I’d thought was right… but was actually wrong.
There was a week in the middle of January which everybody came to believe was the moment of maximum peril for the prime minister.
The conventional narrative in Westminster about that week was that what saved Boris Johnson was a backlash against a Conservative MP called Christian Wakeford who ‘crossed the floor’ as they say – he defected from the Conservatives to Labour.
Lara Spirit, narrating: It was a move that was meant to galvanise other Conservatives into doing the same and trigger the downfall of Boris Johnson. But it didn’t play out that way. And the story they tell around Westminster is that it actually came to save him.
People enjoy that narrative – of deep Westminster tribalism, of betrayal, and loyalty.
But I’ve found out that the reality of that week is more complicated.
While the defection was a moment of pure drama – a moment which one upset MP said was remarkable for its “viciousness” – its impact wasn’t just to galvanise MPs into loyalty.
As well as that, it created space for a shadowy operation which did much more than the defection to save Boris Johnson’s skin.
That operation was run by three men in the Conservative party, who you’ve probably never heard of. They called it a “shadow whipping operation”. And one by one, it picked off enough MPs who were plotting against the prime minister to turn the tide in his favour.
But it’s the way the shadow whipping operation worked which is the real eye-opener. It was a brutal use of political patronage – of the prime minister’s patronage.
It was quite literally jobs for the boys.
But let’s go back to that week – and why in Westminster people think it was Christian Wakeford who saved the prime minister’s skin.
It’s a Monday January 17th. This is the week when, for this story, it all happened.
The prime minister began it still arguing the party he’d been photographed at in Downing Street was – ‘implicitly’, as he kept saying – a work event.
GMB: six Tory MPs have now publicly called for his resignation
Lara Spirit, narrating: There’s no Sue Gray report yet, but it’s expected any day. We don’t know about the Met Police investigation which will prevent it being published in full in one go.
But it is pretty dire for Boris Johnson. So dire, in fact, that “Operation Red Meat” had got well under way over the weekend.
Boris Johnson had started throwing crowd-pleasing policies to his backbenches. It felt like he was lashing out – at the BBC – there was that promise to freeze the licence fee. And at the small boats carrying migrants across the channel – they were going to be stopped by the military.
But there was something else in the papers that week which caught the eye of a disgruntled Conservative MP – our Christian Wakeford, who was about to defect.
The words he saw were anonymous. But he thought he knew where they came from: the Culture Secretary and Boris Johnson ultra-loyalist Nadine Dorries.
They belittled the new 2019 conservative intake – MPs like him.
Christian Wakeford: it was along the lines of who do these f-ing 2019 is think they are, they are everything to borrow is for a load of effing nobodies.
Right? Yeah. So it’s not great if that’s what front bench think of a backbenchers as to where we’re basically here for voting fodder.
Lara Spirit, narrating: By the middle of the week, Christian Wakeford had decided he wanted to become a Labour MP. But how did it come to this?
BBC: the changing colours of the electoral map // look at how dramatically different that map is // it’s fantastic to see so many seats flip from red to blue
Sky: Boris Johnson wasn’t just going to take Labour’s red wall, he was going to wipe it out
Lara Spirit, narrating: Christian was one of the MPs who shattered the “Red Wall” that night. It’s a term given to the seats which swung to Boris Johnson’s party and won him the election, having been Labour for years.
Lara Spirit: it must’ve felt incredible…
Christian Wakeford: It was kind of insane. And then a plethora of all the emotions as have we, haven’t we, oh, I’ve won. I don’t think it really sank in until the Monday morning
Lara Spirit, narrating: It started well. The stomping 80-seat majority gave Christian Wakeford and others the sense that the Conservative victory was their victory. And Boris Johnson said as much at the time.
Johnson on the Red Wall: “I say thank you for the trust you will not take you for granted; you’ve lent us your votes…”
Lara Spirit, narrating: But that didn’t last long. And over the past few weeks a number of those MPs, not just Christian, have told me how little attention Boris Johnson has given them since. Two of them said they hadn’t had a single one-on-one conversation with him until that week Christian Wakeford left.
But for Christian, it went much deeper than that.
Lara Spirit: When did you, if you can think back to the very first time you thought I might not be in the right party, when do you think that moment would be?
Christian Wakeford: I think that Dominic Cummings issue really hit a nerve with me. I think by the time I’d written a statement as to where I felt and then toned it down several times. And even then I didn’t think it went far enough – that really angered me. And the fact that you had minister after minister going out on national TV, defending him, it felt unedifying, it didn’t feel right.
I think you almost sort of had two camps forming quite quickly, which was for the government loyalists.
I will say, I will do whatever I need to. I want to back the government, I want to try and create a career down here. And, you know, there were a few of us who just literally saw it is black and white, is it right? Or is it wrong? That was wrong.
Lara Spirit, narrating: At this stage, the defection was a long time in the works. And it started, in a way, accidentally.
A Labour staffer – someone who isn’t an MP himself but works for one – had been spending time with Christian. They went to the football together at New Year, on Christian’s patch, to watch Radcliffe Borough v FC United.
Christian Wakeford: Having some social downtime, couple beers, watching football and, um, you know, kind of see, even see the new year in.
Lara Spirit, narrating: They were from different political parties, of course – but when they spoke about political issues, it was clear they felt the same.
Christian Wakeford: Yeah. We’d meet, we’d have a chat, but I think I’m a nice guy, you know, if someone wants, wants to have a chat, I don’t care what their background is. So yeah, we got chatting and became friends on the back of it.
Lara Spirit, narrating: It’s almost like a romance. That feeling you have when you realise you’re surprisingly in tune with someone – even if they’re not theoretically your type.
Christian Wakeford: when I was not angry, but clearly annoyed with government stance on live a particular issues, yeah, we’d have a chat.
Lara Spirit, narrating: It became undeniable. And before long it was time to take the relationship further. Then by the autumn, Christian Wakeford was in touch with a Labour whip – that is, another MP who ensures their party’s MPs vote, and vote in the right way – Chris Elmore.
Lara Spirit: so do you remember the first time you ever spoke to Chris Elmore?
Christian Wakeford: first time it wasn’t until December
Lara Spirit, narrating: Soon they were meeting weekly – but texting incessantly.
Christian Wakeford: there was nothing to lose by literally just sitting down and having a coffee. But very conscious as to where it may lead.
Lara Spirit, narrating: At this point, only five people in Labour knew Christian might ever be thinking about leaving the party. One of them was Keir Starmer, and Christian Wakeford had been promised that his secret was being tightly guarded.
After Christmas, the courting began again. The meetings, the coffees, the texts.
Christian Wakeford: it makes me think of that Mitchell and Webb kind of skit where they’re sat there in the trenches and they’re talking about whether or not they are the baddies and you know that for quite a few things I’m proud of achieving down here, proud of speaking out about.
But it very much became a existential crisis within me, really of am I in the right place, you know, conservative party, that I’d been a member of for 19 years – and that’s not a good place to be, where you question yourself almost on a daily basis.
Lara Spirit, narrating: And in the background of Christian’s personal crisis, public attention was focussed on allegations of Downing Street parties.
That Monday, the week of maximum risk for Boris Johnson – the polling guru John Curtice raised the hairs on the skin of MPs sitting in marginal seats like Christian when he laid out just how unpopular Boris Johnson was:
John Curtice: MPs “do have to ask themselves whether or not the prime minister is likely to recover from a situation where around a half of the people who voted for him think he should go.”
Lara Spirit: And at what point had it been discussed kind of bringing Keir into the fold, talking to Keir about….
Christian Wakeford: So it escalated quite quickly. ..
I think by that point, the academic side as to, you know, do I cross, do I not cross back question and naturally been answered? It was very much for me the emotional side. What does it mean to friendships? What’s the actual logistics of doing so?
Lara Spirit, narrating: At 6pm, Keir Starmer and Christian met for the first time.
Christian Wakeford: so I’d got to this office and I guess to some extent was pacing outside because once you go in there’s no going back.
Lara Spirit, narrating: They got on. Keir Starmer set out why the Labour party had changed – and Christian believed they were a different party from the one Jeremy Corbyn led into the 2019 election.
Christian told Keir Starmer it was a matter of when, not if, he jumped ship. But the when mattered to Labour.
And the people involved in these discussions say pressure was put on Christian to move quickly. Keir Statmer was convinced the Wednesday would be best – that PMQs would be the moment when Christian’s move would inflict maximum damage on the PM.
Christian Wakeford: for which I was taken aback because I was thinking, well, I’m here. I’m not against it, but I want this to be on my time table because it’s essentially me who is going to be doing that very physical, their walk across the chamber. Yeah. I still occasionally get goosebumps about that.
Lara Spirit, narrating: Christian Wakeford wants more time. They agree to go away and think about it.
But here accounts differ: people close to Christian – and Christian himself – say the Wednesday wasn’t in the works yet. Labour figures insist it was one of a number of options; the favourite, even.
So Christian went to bed that Tuesday night with no sense, at all, that the following day…he’d be defecting.
SKY: How much trouble is he in as far as the red wall MPs are concened? Operation pork pie as it’s being called…
Lara Spirit, narrating: It was a Wednesday. Wednesday 19 January. Two days into the week it all happened.
That morning, journalists were cancelling their plans. Overnight, 20 of the 2019 intake of MPs – the ones elected just three years before – had been at a plot to try and oust Johnson. The media had reported Christian Wakeford had been there, but, actually, he hadn’t.
It would end up being called the “pork pie plot”, because Melton Mowbray – the pie town – is in the constituency of one of its members, Alicia Kearns. And probably because someone wanted to undermine the seriousness of the whole thing. It’s a meeting you need to remember – because we’ll return to it later on.
Lara Spirit, narrating: There’d been a slight lull at the start of the week, but by Tuesday, after an interview Boris Johnson gave to Sky where he appeared uncharacteristically downbeat – and weak. The sense of peril that had loomed over his premiership for weeks suddenly went off the scale.
Lara Spirit, narrating: It’s worth saying now: nobody apart from Sir Graham Brady, who chairs the Conservative committee which collects letters of no confidence – the letters you need to get rid of Boris Johnson – from MPs, knows exactly how many have been sent in. And you need 54 to force a vote.
So I’m not including the many comments I had from Tory Mps this that they were “single figures” or “just a few” short of that number by Wednesday morning. The truth is that, aside from the 7 that were public, we just don’t know.
But a whip had reportedly said there were “54 out there”. They were extremely concerned. You can see why: over 100 Tory MPs had said they were “waiting for the report” – Sue Gray’s report into the Downing Street parties – by Wednesday.
More than one told me his constituents had sent thousands – literally thousands – of angry letters about partygate; everybody said there were far more during this period than when Dominic Cummings tested his eyesight – and you remember that moments – it was huge, right; and one said that – for the first time ever – the phone actually started ringing, with seriously upset constituents wanting to speak directly with him. Not just that these parties had happened – but that the prime minister had lied about them, and was still lying.
And that morning, that Wednesday, with all of this driving Westminster into a frenzy, Christian Wakeford got a call from a Labour whip called Chris Elmore. He twisted Christian’s arm. The story of the defection might be about to leak, he said.
Lara Spirit: And how did you feel when he first told you about that?
Christian Wakeford: Honestly, physically sick.
Lara Spirit, narrating: Chris Elmore gave him the choice – but made it clear that Labour’s preference would be in just three hours time, at prime minister’s Questions.
Christian agreed, but said he needed to tell his wife. He’d only told her that week that he was even thinking about defecting. He didn’t feel ready.
He felt, actually, petrified. To leave a party he’d belonged to for 19 years with just hours notice? It’s a big thing.
That was 9am. PMQs loomed in his mind – just three hours away, when he’d be sitting on the opposite benches, facing hundreds of his old colleagues – knowing they’d be furious, think him a traitor, perhaps never to talk to him again.
Much of those three hours were spent trying not to be physically sick.
Now parliament is very busy on a Wednesday. I’ve only been covering it for a short time – but I’d know a Wednesday from any other day.
The chamber of the House of Commons is full to the brim. MPs are squashed onto the benches, and the ones who can’t sit down have to stand by the door. They’re all there, of course, for the prime minister’s 30-minute showing.
And it is a show. It’s noisy. I remember joining the lobby and someone telling me before i first went into the camber that its a very different experience from when you watch prime minister’s questions at home, which I have done for years. It’s extremely noisy – and they were right.
Lara Spirit, narrating: But it’s about more than the leader-to-leader joust. Journalists watch from above, in the press galleries, for signs of loyalty waning. Which cabinet members sit around the prime minister, and who asks obsequious – pointless – questions pointing out the brilliance of the government? Or maybe there are signs pointing the other way? Which MP furrows her brow when the PM answers a controversial question, and doesn’t cheer when everyone else does?
And on a day when the views of every single Conservative MP mattered arguably more than ever for Boris Johnson – when whips and journalists were scribbling lists of names of those who may or may not be sending in letters – it was packed.
The news had broken on his decision just moments before.
And in walked Christian Wakeford.
Not to the Conservative benches, but to the ones opposite – where the Labour MPs sit.
And he sat directly behind Keir Starmer.
Christian Wakeford: But honestly we have a parliamentary chambers set up, you know, it is adversarial and having 300 plus of your former friends and colleagues kind of staring at you, and you’re trying not to make any eye contact, I was trying to find individuals to make eye contact with.
That was a challenge. I mean, from that point, my greatest achievement of that day was not throwing up on the back of Keir’s head. I’m sure he’s grateful for that too, but, yeah, that moment was, that was a real kind of challenging struggle.
Lara Spirit, narrating: It’s hard to overstate the shock some Tory MPs had at this moment. The ones I spoke to said there was disbelief, and a lot of confusion. But not just that. Hurt, and pain as well.
Andrew Bowie on Politics Live: Christian is a very good friend of mine an excellent MP and I would be surprised to say the least if that was the case.
Lara Spirit, narrating: This is Andrew Bowie, a Conservative MP, who was a very good friend of Christian’s.
Now you can’t see Andrew’s face on Politics Live in that moment – but there’s a look on his face of astonishment, of being genuinely caught off guard, a look, really, that MPs are trained to hide on TV.
Andrew Bowie on Politics Live: I haven’t spoken to Christian today, I couldn’t say categorically. But would be very surprised if Christian was about to jump ship to the Labour party.
Very quickly it turned into a bit of a meme among his colleagues. They share the picture with good humour. But at the time there was nothing funny about it to Conservative MPs.
Going into PMQs, Boris Johnson was on the verge – it was widely believed – of facing a vote of no confidence; possibly losing his job.
Keir Starmer had high hopes for this moment. Labour sources were briefing that there were more defectors ready to follow Christian Wakeford. It was to be called “Operation Domino”. Chris Elmore, the shadow whip I mentioned, was said to be a Tory whisperer, who was going to coax even more across the aisle. They’d invested so much energy in this moment, put so much into persuading Christian to jump, and jump when he did – they hoped it would be like dramatic defections of the past – defections that dramatise the inevitable decline of a leader.
But it backfired. Christian’s defection had the opposite effect. It didn’t galvanise more defectors, – what it really did was lend a very helping hand to Boris Johnson’s patronage operation.
Chris Heaton-Harris, Chris Pincher and Nigel Adams are the three men who really saved the prime minister that week. All were elected in 2010, so they’ve had well over a decade in the halls of Westminster. And all were ministers when this took place – Chris Heaton-Harris a minister for Europe, Chris Pincher for Housing, and Nigel Adams a minister without portfolio. So they had clout.
Chris Pincher was deputy chief whip before. Chris Heaton-Harris was described to me as one of the “good guys”: he’s an affable Brexiteer, they say, who commands a lot of respect among backbenchers. Nigel, too.
Now these three weren’t official whips, that is, MPs who shepherd their party to show up and vote in a particular way. But they became unofficial whips, running what has been called the shadow whipping operation at that time.
Claire O’Neill: So whipping is to get the government’s business through. I mean, ultimately you’re there to make sure that the government, you know, wins the votes.
Lara Spirit, narrating: This is Claire O’Neill. She’s a former MP and minister and, in 2013, was a whip.
Claire O’Neill: the traditional view is if you don’t vote the right way, we’re going to tell the papers about your awful, you know, alcoholic life or dreadful personal habits.
And the other tactic is if you don’t support the government, you won’t ever get a government job. So one of the, the power of patronage, and that was very powerful in the first few rebellions on the referendum legislation. I know that, and this is pre again pre my time, I was a very junior new MP, but the sense of look, if you don’t support the government, you’ll never get a job in government.
This will count against you. And that’s powerful. Right? So generally the other tactic is: so you’ve got sort of, you know, bullying, you’ve got patronage, you’ve got kindness.
Lara Spirit, narrating: These three individuals did all of this – well. But they did more too. They understood that this period was about one thing: numbers. That it wasn’t, in the end, about the hundreds and hundreds of angry emails from constituents, or those outside Westminster furious that the Downing Street operation had partied and the prime minister lied.
Lara Spirit, narrating: It was a counting game, pure and simple. All that mattered was stopping the number of letters from MPs calling for a vote of no confidence in Boris Johnson from getting to the level which would trigger an actual vote.
All that mattered was the number 54.
Political parties have official whips. The people who are supposed to take care of party discipline and keep backbenchers in line. But the official whips were hopelessly discredited at this time.
So in stepped Chris Heaton-Harris, Chris Pincher and Nigel Adams – and they got to work.
They found out exactly who’d been at that meeting on the Tuesday night – the pork pie plot, the evening before Christian Wakeford’s defection – where 20 of the new intake of Conservative MPs had got together to discuss the prime minister’s position.
Who knows how they got the names? But sure enough, the names of the people who were there leaked.
And Chris, Chris and Nigel sought them out – apart from the ones they knew were too far gone in their condemnation of the PM – and they tried to bring them round. And to make sure they didn’t put a letter in.
A former senior cabinet minister said to me that the crucial quality of a good whip is to “know what medicine to use on the patient”. And in the last weeks, it’s become quite obvious to me which medicines were used on which patients in that pork pie group. And that, in the end, they worked.
During that crucial week Chris Heaton-Harris, Chris Pincher and Nigel Adams would hang around by the escalator in Portcullis House, the building where a lot of MPs have their offices.
They’d pick them off as they passed, ask them how they were feeling… if they’d sent in a letter… what they needed to get them back onside?
Lara Spirit : why do you think these three were forced to step in when they did to save the prime minister as opposed to the official whips office at that time?
Claire O’Neill: because they’re really effective, you know, they were really effective in the leadership campaign and they clearly are able to, perhaps there’s another element to this, which we’ve touched on, which is the sort of organisation. You know, there is something about, okay, well, hang on, you know, MP X, you said this this and you said that and well, how are you going to do this?
And do you really want to put in the no confidence letter now? There’s just a sort of relentless organisation. I used to keep Excel spreadsheets, very password protected and not for nefarious purposes, but just to log things like people’s birthdays. What did they feel about legislation X and obviously destroyed them when I left the whip’s office. But they were really effective. And I was told that was really unusual just to have that sense of, you know, understanding of your flock, as it’s referred to. And I think probably that team are pretty organised. I imagine they’ve got lots of spreadsheets and lots of energy and outreach as well.
Lara Spirit, narrating: Those MPs who joined in 2019, those who met that Tuesday, won’t be used to that. The whipping operation they’d had before was notoriously hands off: a text once a week, sometimes, just checking they were on board with upcoming votes. Nothing like the activity that kicked into gear during this operation to save Johnson.
They’d ask: “you don’t want to become Andrew Bridgen, do you?” – which is a sort of damning but coded question that needs a bit of explanation.
Andrew Bridgen is a Conservative MP – who had sent in a letter – who isn’t, how to put this kindly, the most highly-regarded backbencher in Westminster…
There’s only one answer to that question.
It became bitter. But so far, knowing a little bit about how Westminster works, I was struck that the shadow whipping operation was a lot like what normal whips do. The not-so-subtle pressure, the muttered threats about career prospects: that’s pretty ordinary.
But there were serious allegations made at the time by the Conservative MP William Wragg. He said whips had threatened to pull funding from the constituencies of MPs who called for a no confidence vote. He’d even spoken to the Met Police about it. In the end, though, the Met didn’t launch a criminal investigation.
But that wasn’t the heart of it.
The heart of it was the meetings these backbench MPs were having with the prime minister, who was making direct attempts – himself – to shore up support.
After a first meeting outside the lifts in Portcullis House, the next stop for a number of MPs was a one-to-one with Boris Johnson. That’s where the real business got done.
Lara Spirit, narrating: And the job offers came, ultimately, directly from Boris Johnson. When he was pushed on the specifics, Boris Johnson would say that they should sort it out with one of the three men. But I know that – at least sometimes – the first mention of a job came from the prime minister himself.
Some MPs were quite open with me about how all this played out. But others were more coy. When I asked one whether he’d met the PM personally, he smiled, looked ahead of him, and just said: “I’m not going to tell you if I met him at that time”.
Another MP was persuaded to support Boris Johnson after an offer of levelling up funding for his constituency – an offer that MP believed would turn into something real.
A former senior cabinet minister told me that promises like this – explicit promises of a job in exchange for support – would be surprising and foolish. “You never make offers”, he said.
But these offers were made. And the MPs they were made to came round to Boris Johnson.
In February, new jobs were announced in a mini reshuffle. They included six new PPS jobs – private parliamentary secretaries. Now something caught my eye in this list. There were two names in there that had been at that pork pie meeting – they were Duncan Baker and Richard Holden.
Claire O’Neill: George Osborne said to me, this is a court and your power comes from whose elbow you weren’t dancing at as a junior person. And so what you want is to basically be noticed, and if you want to do good for your constituency, but you want to show that you’re getting on, right.
.And so basically a PPS is your very first slot on the rung and it is it’s called the ministerial bag carrier. It’s almost a halfway house between back bedroom minister. It’s not paid. And your job is to support your minister in parliament.
And what was striking was that despite being at a meeting to plot the downfall of the PM… they had accepted a job soon after with the government.
I’ve reached out to both of them for this story but neither responded. Duncan, as we heard at the start, had been furious about partygate – and made no attempt to hide it from his colleagues. And Richard? This was Richard last week.
Richard Holden in PMQs: Can the prime minister confirm that this new community hospital is now full steam ahead and will he commit to coming to kick off the building works if the plan goes ahead by the end of next year?
Lara Spirit, narrating: Now MPs raised eyebrows at this – and it’s not difficult to see why. It wasn’t all that long ago that Richard said he was waiting on the Sue Gray report, and it was “definitely not” a yes that the prime minister would keep his job.
But then… something changed. And I think I know what it might be.
He took the promotion. And now he wants Boris Johnson to open his new hospital.
Sometimes, while I’ve been reporting this story, I’ve tried to put myself in the shoes of one of the MPs at the pork pie meeting. I had 19 colleagues with me, right? So I’d have felt… strong.
Maybe not all of them had made up their minds to try to get rid of Boris Johnson, but a lot of them had.
There were personal attacks on Alicia Kearns and Dahenna Davison – two MPs who were at the meeting – which might have made me think twice. But I think I’d have felt emboldened by the size of it. All it would take was 54 MPs to send a letter for the prime minister to face that vote – and here was nearly half that number in one room.
But maybe that was the miscalculation. Because Boris Johnson didn’t need to stop 54 people writing letters, he only needed to stop a handful. And he knew exactly how to do it.
Normally, a prime minister uses patronage to reward loyalty. Perhaps the little bit of genius in Boris Johnson’s approach – as well as the thing which flirts with the edge of what’s acceptable – is that he used it to reward disloyalty instead.
Your average person might well think that this sounds very much like a bribe, although technically it isn’t. In parliament it’s not even clear that it’s outside the rules.
It was in this climate that these shadow whips were able to pick off would-be letters. Christian Wakeford did move too soon.
But he didn’t dramatise the inevitable, as successful defections of the past have, and Keir Starmer had – yes – misread the Tory psyche.
But it was about more than that. Boris Johnson owes a lot to Chris Heaton-Harris, Chris Pincher, and Nigel Adams – men we know little about – who were able, where the official whips couldn’t, to find those at risk of tipping that letter count over the threshold.
And there were two new jobs which I’ve not yet mentioned. They went to these two Chris’s, men who were deemed so valuable to Johnson in this hour of danger that they should be in charge of the whipping operation in its entirety: Chris Heaton-Harris is now chief whip, and Chris Pincher his deputy. So this episode paints a picture of what party discipline could look like from now on.
And he’s safe – for now. Without a doubt, the Russian invasion of Ukraine which made that week – a week when MPs described Westminster as a pressure cooker – seem almost of a different age.
Lara Spirit, narrating: Even the most critical Tory MPs agree that the crisis in Ukraine has changed everything. That it would be impossible to remove him at this moment. In the words of one MP, an MP who wants him gone, it would look “self-indulgent”.
And one poll last week showed him having made a full recovery from the party revelations. Now MPs watch these polls – MPs including those at that pork pie meeting, and MPs in marginal constituencies like Christians.
But the many MPs I spoke to believe, should he be issued a fine by the Metropolitan Police, that more letters will go in. And we may not start the saga again, but we would – without doubt – see this trio of men assume a role at the heart of British politics once more.
I thought this would be a story about how loyalty saved the prime minister – a unique brand of loyalty belonging to the Conservative party – and about how that moment Christian Wakeford crossed the floor changed everything.
And it did. But it wasn’t because of a special brand of tribalism belonging to the Conservative party. It was about transactions. About how Christian’s move gave three men the chance to count – and about how Boris Johnson subsequently squared them off, promised them jobs – and funding – and made it through that period.
And when the history is written of why Boris Johnson survived the greatest wobble of his premiership yet, it’s this.
I put the findings of my investigation to Number 10. I asked them this list of questions:
- Did the prime minister have a one-to-one meeting with Duncan Baker this year and before his appointment as PPS?
- And following that meeting was Baker offered a position as PPS?
- Did the prime minister have a one-to-one meeting with Richard Holden this year and before his appointment as PPS?
- And following that meeting was Holden offered a position as PPS?
I told them that through my reporting, I had come to understand that at least two further MPs were offered jobs in personal meetings with Johnson this year, in addition to at least one who was offered levelling up funding for his constituency in return for their personal support following the Downing Street party allegations.
I then asked, if the prime minister denies making offers of jobs and/or constituency funding during his meetings with backbench MPs from 12th January to 11th February, or wish to offer a response to any of the points above?
This was the response I received:
“The prime minister routinely meets members of the Conservative Parliamentary Party.”
This story was reported by me, Lara Spirit.
The producer was Gary Marshall and sound design was by Tom Kinsella.
The editor was Ceri Thomas.
How we got here
The story I set out to solve was whether Christian Wakeford’s defection saved Boris Johnson in the week beginning 17 January. So I focused on that week: and sought to find out all I could about what MPs remembered. Many of the specifics aren’t possible to relay without revealing quite a few people who made the details it reveals possible. If they’d wanted to be revealed, a great deal more information itself would’ve come to publicised light, too. But all those MPs who I spoke to for this story, Christian Wakeford aside, didn’t want to go on the record – and you can understand why.
When I began this investigation I was looking for MPs who would’ve sent in a letter but didn’t because of Christian – and I found some. But in speaking to them, I realised something more interesting: these shadow whipping names – Chris, Chris and Nigel – just kept coming up. And they came up with an abundance of caution and, not uncommonly, a bit of fear, too. And they came up, often but not always, in relation to subsequent meetings with Boris Johnson himself. And that’s where I began to think something interesting about patronage might have happened that week.
I re-read some of Robert Caro’s work on Lyndon B. Johnson, someone almost unparalleled in his ability to bend the legislature to his will. I thought about how the gifting of jobs to MPs has always – and Robert Walpole, Britain’s first PM, was the master of this – been part and parcel with what it means to be a prime minister. So how is what I was hearing from these MPs different? The tales of explicit job offers from Johnson, and of levelling up funding, was different. And after a fascinating set of conversations with, among others, a former senior cabinet minister, MPs and commentators, I really did realise that these offers – and Boris Johnson’s individual use of patronage – stepped further than prime minister’s of the past. And then I set out working through who had been targeted, who came round, and why…
Whipping up support
Whipping up support
We’ve charted the changing attitudes of Conservative MPs towards the prime minister over the last two months – with “Partygate” dominating the news for much of that time. The results may surprise you
- Christian Wakeford’s long walk to defection – Iain Watson, BBC News
- How the Labour party’s “red wall” turned blue – James Kanagasooriam, the Financial Times
- Another Brick in the Wall – Onward report on the next general election’s battleground by James Blagden
- Tory MP accuses Boris Johnson’s government of “blackmail” – Esther Webber, Politico
- Johnson’s new chief whip has work cut out to tame a party with a taste for rebellion – Alice Lilly, Institute for Government
More of our podcasts, ThinkIns and articles covering stories in Westminster and Whitehall.