Matt Hancock and a senior aide discussed ways to block funding for MPs’ local projects, including a new centre for disabled children, to persuade them to vote for Covid rules, leaked messages reveal.
MPs said the messages were part of a “culture of the regime” and accused members of Boris Johnson’s administration of being “drunk on power”.
They said there had been a widespread tactic of threatening public spending in constituencies – including during votes on lockdowns, on free school meals and later in order to discourage letters of no confidence in Boris Johnson.
Hancock’s spokesperson said the discussion about threatening the funding of a health hub in James Daly’s Bury North constituency was never acted upon. One MP said there had been a trend of discussing the use of spending decisions to influence votes and that newer MPs – like Daly – were seen as “easy pickings” because they were new to Westminster and did not have a good network of senior colleagues to ask for advice.
“It was a culture of that time,” the MP said.
The messages between Hancock and his adviser, Allan Nixon, show the former health secretary agreeing with the suggestion “100%” that projects in constituencies should be used as ways to persuade MPs to vote for the tier system in December 2020.
The leaks were unveiled in the Daily Telegraph’s investigation into Hancock’s leaked WhatsApp messages, named the Lockdown Files.
The former Conservative party chair Jake Berry tweeted that Hancock “should be dragged to the bar of the House of Commons first thing tomorrow morning to be questioned on this”.
Berry said that Hancock had said he “wants to weaponise provision of care to disabled children to try and force MPs to vote in a certain way”.
“I actually think once you get to the point that you are weaponising the provision of care to disabled children, I think you have crossed the line and as a local MP and … as a father with a son with additional needs, I know how desperately provision of this sort of care is required in the local area,” Berry told Times Radio.
“And I just think it’s an absolutely despicable and appalling way for Matt Hancock and his advisers to have behaved.”
Downing Street said the whole context should be judged by the official Covid inquiry. Sunak’s spokesperson said: “Funding decisions are taken in line with strict guidelines to ensure value for money set out in the spending framework and ministers and departments are held accountable for those decisions.”
The row predates a separate issue the following year where an MP made a complaint to the police about alleged tactics used by the whips to shore up support for Boris Johnson – including similar threats to constituency funds.
The leaked WhatsApp messages were sent before a rebellion by more than 50 MPs against the regional tier system for lockdowns, with dozens of MPs expressing anger at the categorisation of their local areas and support for business.
Hancock’s messages show they were keen to persuade MPs from the 2019 intake not to rebel, and whips had shared a spreadsheet of significant numbers of MPs who were unhappy. A source close to Hancock said on the same day 512 people had died. “Tens of thousands of lives were at stake. Of course Matt considered all options.”
Daly, whose vote was considered to be at risk, had been campaigning for a public health hub in his constituency to benefit vulnerable people in the community.
On 22 November, 10 days before the vote, Nixon wrote to Hancock: “I think we need to dangle our top asks over some of these 2019 intake MPs who are going off the boil this coming week.
“Thoughts on me suggesting to Chief’s spads that they give us a list of the 2019 intakes thinking of rebelling. Eg James wants his Learning Disability Hub in Bury – whips call him up and say Health team want to work with him to deliver this but that’ll be off the table if he rebels.”
Hancock replied “yes 100%” to the suggestion.
A spokesperson for the former health secretary said: “The missing context here is vitally important because this vote was critical for saving lives.
“What’s being accused here never happened, demonstrating the story is wrong, and showing why such a biased, partial approach to the evidence is a bad mistake, driven by those with a vested interest and an axe to grind.
“The right place to consider everything about the pandemic objectively is in the public inquiry.”
Daly told the Telegraph the hub had still not been given the green light but said he was not contacted by the whips to make such threats.
He said: “They were never proposing to give it to me. I still don’t have it. Even though I have repeatedly campaigned for it, Hancock never showed the slightest bit of interest in supporting it. I think it is appalling.
“The fact that they would only give a much-needed support for disabled people if I voted for this was absolutely disgusting.”
On 2 December, the day of the vote, Hancock messaged to say: “James Daly is with us.”
Daly voted against the government. In total, 55 Conservative MPs opposed the system, which passed because Labour abstained.
Conservative whips were accused of using similar tactics during the Johnson era. The former Conservative MP Christian Wakeford, who defected to Labour, alleged party whips told him he would lose funding for a new high school in his constituency if he did not vote with the government.
William Wragg urged MPs to report government ministers, whips and advisers to the speaker – and even the police – for what he claimed was attempted blackmail of some colleagues suspected of possibly opposing Johnson during the Partygate scandal. Police took no further action.