Downing Street has dramatically pulled an amendment aimed at forcing Tory MPs to delay an inquiry into whether Boris Johnson misled parliament – which will now allow MPs to vote to investigate the prime minister.
Amid growing anger from Conservative MPs, the Commons leader, Mark Spencer, said that MPs would be given a free vote on a motion to refer Johnson to the Commons privileges committee – which has the power to demand documents and photographs of lockdown breaches.
With minutes to go before a vote that would have delayed any inquiry, Spencer told MPs: “The prime minister has indicated that he is keen for the house to decide on the business later today. The vote on the unamended house business will be a free vote to all Conservative MPs.”
Chris Pincher, the government’s chief whip, texted Tory MPs telling them that Johnson was “happy for the Commons to decide on any referrals to the privilege committee”. He added the government would “no longer move our tabled amendment”.
Pincher added: “The vote on the unamended house business motion will be a free vote for all Conservative MPs. Accordingly we are now on a one-line whip.”
On Wednesday night, as Tory whips scrambled to find a way to block or delay the inquiry by the privileges committee, even among frontbenchers there was palpable disquiet that MPs should be forced to block an investigation into the prime minister, who received a police fixed-penalty notice last week.
Earlier in the Commons, the Tory MP Charles Walker had urged the government to reconsider whipping MPs to delay the inquiry. “Can we please try and find a way today not to have a fractious debate and a division?” he said.
“I believe genuinely that the prime minister is a good and decent man and he can make the case to the privileges committee directly without having this house to divide and yet more poison be pumped into public life.”
A senior government source said Johnson had instructed whips to pull the amendment after becoming concerned about accusations of a cover-up.
“The prime minister has always been clear that he’s happy to face whatever inquiries parliament sees fit and is happy for the house to decide how it wishes to proceed today and therefore will not be whipping Conservative MPs,” he said. “They are free to vote according to how they believe we should move forward on this.”
The source said the amendment on Wednesday had been tabled to allow the process to take place after the internal Whitehall report by the civil servant Sue Gray was published – although it made no specific commitments that the parliamentary inquiry would still be allowed.
“We now recognise that – in practice – this is almost certainly likely to be the case and therefore we are happy for the Labour motion to go through if that is the will of the house,” the source said.
Labour’s deputy leader, Angela Rayner, called the U-turn humiliating. She said that No 10 “knew they couldn’t win this” because Johnson was “bang to rights” so was forced to capitulate.
Rayner added: “Tory MPs should do the right thing, respect the sacrifices that their constituents made during the pandemic, and vote in the national interest.”
Source: The Guardian