Oh dear. Boris Johnson's decision to withdraw the whip from the Tory Brexit rebels continues to send ripples through Westminster. While Chief Whip Mark Spencer has laid out the appeals process to the rebels, many of their colleagues remain unhappy about the decision to remove them from the party.
Now things have taken a turn for the worse in the Tory Women in Parliament WhatsApp group. Originally, the group was used to share events and ideas amongst Tory women in the vote100 year, it was set up at the height of the Westminster bullying scandal and has since been used on occasion for Conservative women's policy updates.
However, on Thursday evening, young female CCHQ staffers ended up being removed as admins and leaving the group over a backlash from female MPs after figures from CCHQ updated the group to reflect current staffers and MPs. As part of the update, female MPs who lost the Conservative whip over voting against the government anti-no deal legislation were removed from the group.
The decision did not land well with a number of current female Conservative MPs who accused CCHQ staffers of ‘sowing division’ at the behest of party chairman James Cleverly. Staff were forced to defend themselves and say it was a standard update to group membership, so not to inadvertently leak or cause security issues for MPs. A parliament staff source says the group was updated to 'protect the security of those on it'.
In protest at the move to remove former Conservative female MPs, Tory MP Claire Perry wrote:
“'Hi all – just to say, I am very queasy about the removal of fantastic female colleagues and strong conservative advocates from this group. Plenty of other members have rebelled against three-line whips with impunity and repeatedly. I suggest a rapid rethink?'
She went on:
“'When Anne, Amber and I were whips I argued strongly that the whip should be stripped from the colleagues who colluded with the oppo and rebelled repeatedly on Europe. 'It's a matter of conscience dear' they would tell me as they waltzed through the wrong lobby. We didn't remove the whip and we did not exact vindictive revenge but worked hard to keep our party together. I am totally disgusted by this action – whose decision was it?'
Conservative deputy chair, Helen Whately attempted to cool tensions, replying: 'It's not a CCHQ controlled group. It's Conservative Women in Parliament. CCHQ Women's Officers are on it in order to share announcements and info.' New Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey then suggested angered MPs turn their attention to Party Chairman James Cleverly rather than junior staff:
“Therese Coffey: I would encourage my Parliamentary colleagues to contact the Party Chairman about this, as I do not believe that CCHQ staffers would do this off their own bat.
Claire Perry: Christ on a bike what are we becoming
To which, junior minister Kemi Badenoch added:
“'I agree, Therese. I'm sure this is a matter that can be resolved easily and offline without turning it into something where staff are being accused on a group forum by MPs or being asked to explain themselves.'
“'I think you will find that we are ALL responsible for trying to bring the party together Kemi whether staffers, MPs or peers. And that many of us are so utterly despondent at what is being done to some of our best, brightest and hardest working.
But I entirely agree that as James is clearly telling his team to sow division he is the one to be contacted. And that is what I've done.'
Vicky Ford then removed 'admin status' from anyone on the group who was not an MP – meaning these individuals would not be able to add or remove recipients.
'So much for solidarity,' remarks one member of the group – pointing to the fact it was meant to be a forum for female support. However, they have at least managed to unite around a common enemy in Cleverly. Oh to be a fly-on-the-wall when Perry finally got a hold of him...