Matt Hancock has been accused of “despicable” behaviour after leaked messages suggested he discussed withholding funding for a learning disability centre to pressure an MP not to rebel against coronavirus restrictions.
The former health secretary and an aide spoke about warning Bury North MP James Daly that a new centre for disabled children and adults would be “off the table” if he voted against the Government, according to leaked WhatsApp messages.
Senior Conservative Jake Berry described the disclosure as an “absolute disgrace” and called for Hancock to be hauled before the Commons for questioning.
Sir Jake, whose son has disabilities, said: “Once you get to the point that you are weaponising the provision of care to disabled children, I think you have crossed the line.”
Hancock’s team said “what’s being accused here never happened” as they disputed the “entirely partial account” based on a trove of his WhatsApp messages handed to the Daily Telegraph.
Vote on new Covid restrictions
The newspaper said the discussion between Hancock and political aide Allan Nixon came ahead of a vote on December 1 2020 on the introduction of new Covid-19 restrictions in England.
It came at a time when Whitehall was scrambling to put measures in place because tens of thousands of lives were at stake over the winter, with all options being considered to ensure the vote was won.
Nixon said they needed to “dangle our top asks” over some of the newest MPs who entered Parliament in 2019 through Boris Johnson’s general election victory.
Nixon suggested, for example, “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”.
“These guys’ re-election hinges on us in a lot of instances, and we know what they want. We should seriously consider using it IMO,” he wrote.
Hancock’s response was “yes 100 per cent”.
“Appalled” and “disgusted”
Daly, a Conservative MP, told the paper he was “appalled” and “disgusted” that the disability hub was discussed as a way to coerce him into voting with ministers.
But he said the threat was never made to him.
Hancock’s spokesman said: “As we’ve repeatedly seen this last week, it is completely wrong to take this entirely partial account and write it up as fact.
“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.”
Rossendale and Darwen MP Sir Jake, a former Tory Party chairman, said: “This is an absolute disgrace.
“Hancock should be dragged to the bar of the House of Commons first thing tomorrow morning to be questioned on this.”
On Times Radio, he added: “What he has effectively said is that he wants to weaponise provision of care to disabled children to try and force MPs to vote in a certain way.
“Politics… is full of sort of arm-twisting and leverage and cajoling. But 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… a father with a son with additional needs, I know how desperately provision of this sort of care is required in the local area.
“And I just think it’s an absolutely despicable and appalling way for Matt Hancock and his advisers to have behaved.”
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