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Have the last few weeks seen a turning point in Boris Johnson’s premiership? 

Dozens of Tories have refused to follow the prime minister’s orders in the voting lobbies on issues as diverse as sleaze and social care.

Meanwhile a handful of Tory MPs have gone public with demands for change, with many more complaining in Westminster’s cafes and bars. At times, it has felt like Mr Johnson was losing his political agility.

“There are too many issues at the moment in which the government is shooting itself in the foot with issues and problems which as I say colleagues are warning and warning and warning about and that are visible from Venus, Mars even maybe visible from Pluto,” northern Tory and ex minister Andrew Percy told Sky News.

“And that has got to stop because we owe the people of this country better than that.”

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Is PM losing Tory support?

Mr Percy hasn’t always been a rebel, though he accepts that description now.

Not that long ago he occupied the high profile portfolio of Northern Powerhouse minister until 2017 and was an early backer of Mr Johnson’s leadership in the summer of 2019.

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Nor can he just be dismissed as one of a small number of irreconcilables.

Almost one in seven Tory MPs – 52 of them – have rebelled more often than Mr Percy, according to the Public Whip website which provides a crude tally of how many times he and his colleagues have voted against their party.

Yet he is one of the few prepared to go on the record in a television interview quite so expansively with their concerns, and as he sits in his office next to a full size Yorkshire flag, he worries, the government’s political antennae is wonky.

“Those are questions that people around the prime minister and then the senior levels of government have to ask themselves.

“They have to look and see if the setup of this government is broad enough, if it is drawn wide enough from the party if it is reflective of our new voter base, if it’s reflective even of our new base on the back benches.”

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PM asked ‘is everything okay?’ after speech

Last week, he voted like many others against the government’s social care plans because they will mean the less well off having to pay more than affluent voters before the state steps in and picks up care home bills.

Tory rebels cut the government majority from 80 to 26, setting off alarm bells across the party.

Mr Percy blasts Rishi Sunak’s department, saying their focus on keeping control of public spending is getting in the way of the party meeting its promises.

He said: “The Treasury has to be cognizant of what we promised people, what we told people, and I understand absolutely, you know, public spending is at record levels, you know, the amount of debt we are facing following COVID and all the rest of it is really, really very challenging.

“And these same conversations are happening in governments all across the world. I totally appreciate the challenge, but commitments were made, be that on rail, they were made on social care, they were put into our manifesto, people voted for us on the basis of those and therefore, you know, we need to ensure that we are making good on those promises.”

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PM loses place in speech, uses Peppa Pig joke

Beneath the surface this argument, between Tories who want to spend whatever it takes to deliver for voters, and those who think strong public finances are the bedrock of the Tory claim to competence.

Not all promises cost money, however, and Tories across the party are worried one of their biggest weaknesses stems from making offers that never materialise.

Ex-minister Tim Loughton, now a Tory on the home affairs select committee, points the finger firmly at France for the migrant crisis.

However he worries that the government has talked up its ability to find a quick fix too often when it is unable to find an easy solution.

Tim Loughton (front) points the finger firmly at France for the migrant crisis
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Tim Loughton (front) points the finger firmly at France for the migrant crisis

“There is a genuine concern that the government has talked tough,” he told me. “The government genuinely wants this trade to end, as we all do, but we haven’t been able to achieve that on our own because most of the cards are in the hands of French.

“And perhaps it wasn’t wise to overpromise when we couldn’t rely on the partnership we need to solve this.”

Soon there will be two opportunities for voters to pass their verdict, with two traditionally safe Tory seats heading to the polls for a byelection.

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PM’s letter stirs controversy

This Thursday will see the vote in Bexley and Old Sidcup where the south London voters will choose a successor to popular minister James Brokenshire, who died of cancer in October.

Two weeks later, voters in North Shropshire will elect a successor to disgraced ex-minister Owen Paterson. Few expect an upset in Bexley, although some Liberal Democrats say they are putting in a concerted effort in Shropshire.

On the streets of Bexley, however, there was little sign of danger for Mr Johnson, where at times voters appeared more forgiving than his own MPs.

Tory voters there talk of Mr Johnson going “off the boil” and “fumbling” and doing things that mean they “lack confidence”.

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PM ‘deeply saddened’ by migrant deaths in Channel

Asked if that means they will take their vote elsewhere, most said not, often arguing he had been dealt an unprecedented bad hand.

This could be dismissed as an outlier result in a safe Tory seat, but the national opinion polls suggest that even after the most recent few weeks, Mr Johnson’s party enjoys an advantage.

The most recent YouGov survey from last week puts the Tories on 36% and Labour on 35%.

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‘It’s corrupt – there’s no other word for it’

Older voters in the 65 and above category are twice as likely to vote Tory than Labour, an advantage Labour has not yet begun to directly tackle.

Meanwhile there is little sign Keir Starmer’s Labour is winning over Tory votes directly. Amongst those who voted Tory in 2019, 6% would now choose to vote for Labour but twice as many, 11%, would go for the little known Brexit Party successor, Reform UK.

The last three weeks have seen doubts about Mr Johnson in Westminster unthinkable even during Tory conference in early October, as well as calls for him to shake up his team and signs of fissures in government.

It is not yet clear those doubts in Westminster have filtered through and changed the voting habits in the country.

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Tories warned Mark Menzies misuse of funds claims ‘constituted fraud’ but whistleblower told there was no ‘duty’ to report it

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Tories warned Mark Menzies misuse of funds claims 'constituted fraud' but whistleblower told there was no 'duty' to report it

The Conservatives were warned ex-Tory MP Mark Menzies’s alleged misuse of party funds may have constituted fraud but the whistleblower was told there was no duty to report it

Mr Menzies, the MP for Fylde in Lancashire, gave up the Tory whip in the wake of reports in The Times that he misused party funds. He disputes the allegations.

The allegations came about after Mr Menzies former campaign manager, Katie Fieldhouse, spoke to the newspaper.

Mark Menzies pictured in Peru  in 2020
Pic: AP
Image:
Mark Menzies pictured in Peru in 2020. Pic: AP

In a new interview with The Times this evening, Ms Fieldhouse, 78, claims she was told the Conservative Party was aware the allegations were potentially criminal.

She says the Conservative Party’s chief of staff “told me that when they first took over the investigation [from the Whips’ Office] they had consulted solicitors”.

She added: “He told me on the phone, ‘the solicitor said it is fraud but you are not duty-bound to report it because it’s not Conservative Party money’.”

The whistleblower said she was told the decision not to inform the police was made because it was donors’ money and not the party’s.

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A Conservative spokesperson said: “The party is conducting an investigation into the claims made and has been doing so for several months.

“We will of course share any information with the police if they believe it would be helpful to any investigation they decide to undertake.

“Suggestions the party has not been seriously examining this matter are demonstrably false.”

Lancashire Police said today it was “reviewing” information about Mr Menzies after Labour asked for an investigation to take place.

In a statement, the force said: “We can confirm that we have now received a letter detailing concerns around this matter and we are in the process of reviewing the available information in more detail.”

Read more: All the Tory MPs suspended since Sunak became PM

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Ruth Davidson on Mark Menzies allegations

The party’s chief whip, Simon Hart, is said to have been made aware of the claims in January, when the former campaign manager reported what had happened.

Sky News understands there has been an investigation ongoing by Conservative Campaign Headquarters (CCHQ) since the allegations were first raised, but further information came to light this week and Mr Hart acted immediately.

Speaking tonight, Labour’s chair Anneliese Dodds said: “The Conservative chairman and chief whip must urgently come out of hiding and explain what they knew and what advice they received.

“If, as reported, they or Conservative officials​ were warned about potentially fraudulent activity and chose not to go to the police, this would be indefensible.”

Mr Menzies, who has served as an MP since May 2010, is reported to have phoned his 78-year-old former campaign manager at 3.15am last December, saying he was locked in a flat by “bad people” and needed £5,000 as a matter of “life and death”.

The sum, which rose to £6,500, was eventually paid by his office manager from her personal bank account and subsequently reimbursed from funds raised from donors in an account named Fylde Westminster Group, the newspaper says.

Speaking to Sky News, Ms Fieldhouse said: “I am feeling dreadful because I am a devout Tory and as I have said to everybody else, I reported his actions to the chief whip… it is now the middle of April.

“Come to your own conclusions [about] what is happening.”

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Asked if she was disappointed with the way the complaint was being handled, she said: “Yes.”

Mr Menzies said on Thursday: “I strongly dispute the allegations put to me. I have fully complied with all the rules for declarations. As there is an investigation ongoing I will not be commenting further.”

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Mark Menzies: Tory activist who reported MP over alleged misuse of funds disappointed by party response

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Mark Menzies: Tory activist who reported MP over alleged misuse of funds disappointed by party response

A Tory activist who reported an MP over claims he misused party funds has told Sky News she is disappointed by the way her complaint has been handled.

Mark Menzies voluntarily quit the Conservative parliamentary party this week after a report in The Times claimed he called his ex-campaign manager Katie Fieldhouse, 78, early one day to say he was locked in a flat by “bad people” and needed £5,000 as a matter of “life and death”.

The sum, which rose to £6,500, was eventually paid by his office manager from her personal bank account and subsequently reimbursed from funds raised from donors in an account named Fylde Westminster Group, the newspaper said.

Politics live: Sunak accused of ‘full on assault on disabled people’ after welfare speech

But despite the incident taking place in December – and Ms Fieldhouse submitting her complaint in January – the Fylde MP had remained part of the parliamentary party and as a trade envoy for the government until the press reports surfaced.

He has now lost the Conservative whip and was suspended as one of Rishi Sunak’s envoys.

Mr Menzies strongly disputes the claims, which also include accusations he used campaign funds to pay his personal medical bills.

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Speaking to Sky News’ Frazer Maude, Ms Fieldhouse said: “I am feeling dreadful because I am a devout Tory and as I have said to everybody else, I reported his actions to the chief whip… it is now the middle of April.

“Come to your own conclusions [about] what is happening.”

Asked if she was disappointed with the way the complaint was being handled, she said: “Yes.”

And asked if Mr Menzies should step down, she added: “It is for his conscience and the party to deal with. I have put my faith in the party, it is for them to deal with it.”

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Mr Sunak was also asked by reporters on Friday whether his former colleague should quit the Commons, and why it had taken until now for the party to act, but he said he would not comment while an investigation was being carried out.

Instead, the prime minister said: “It’s right that Mark Menzies has resigned the Conservative whip. He’s been suspended from his position as a trade envoy whilst the investigations into those allegations continue.

“For our part, I can’t comment on an ongoing investigation while it’s happening and he’s no longer a Conservative MP.”

Meanwhile, the Labour Party has written to Lancashire Police to demand an investigation into allegations of fraud and misconduct in public office.

Leader Sir Keir Starmer told broadcasters that the Conservatives “seem to have sat on their hands” over the allegations.

He added: “If they thought they could sweep this under the carpet somehow they were obviously very mistaken and that is why I think there are very serious questions now that need to be answered – not just by the individual but also by the government on this.”

And the Liberal Democrats have called for the ministerial ethics adviser to investigate chief whip Simon Hart’s handling of the complaint.

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Labour blames ‘shoplifters’ charter’ for surge in retail crime

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Labour blames 'shoplifters' charter' for surge in retail crime

A “shoplifters’ charter” has seen thefts rise significantly – to about one offence every minute – but police are charging fewer people, according to Labour.

The party said data showed a record 402,482 shoplifting offences in England and Wales in the year to September 2023.

However, offences resulting in a police charge fell from 20% to 15% between 2018 and 2023, according to a Freedom of Information request.

Labour said offenders were getting off “scot-free” as the fall had not been matched by a rise in other penalties.

More than 54% of shoplifting offences are also dropped with no suspect identified, according to recent Home Office figures.

Labour partly blamed the situation on a 2014 move to introduce a “low value” shoplifting category for items worth under £200 in total.

Theresa May, then home secretary, brought it in to speed things up and allow police to deal with these offences by post.

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But Labour and others, such as the British Retail Consortium, said it meant officers have deprioritised shoplifting.

The rise in shoplifting and attacks on staff have caused some retailers to lock away – or put security tags on – everyday products such as meat, butter, chocolate and coffee.

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Shoplifter ransacks Co-op

Co-op’s food business lost £33m in just six months last year as shoplifting cases surged.

A recent British Retail Consortium survey said the number of annual customer thefts across the UK had doubled to 16 million – far higher than the Home Office data.

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Middle-class shoplifters partly to blame, says M&S chairman

Shadow home secretary Yvette Copper said Labour would change the law as criminals are “getting away with it and more local businesses are paying the price”.

“The Conservative government has decimated neighbourhood policing, leaving our town centres unprotected, and they are still refusing to get rid of the £200 rule, which is encouraging repeat offending and organised gangs of shoplifters,” said Ms Cooper.

“Labour will scrap the Tories’ shoplifters’ charter and bring in a community policing guarantee, with 13,000 more neighbourhood police and PCSOs to crack down on shoplifting and keep the public safe.”

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Home Office minister Chris Philp said the “reality” was people in Labour-run areas were 20% more likely to be a victim of shoplifting, and 40% more likely to be a victim of crime, than those in Conservative areas.

“This month, Rishi Sunak and the Conservatives announced that serial or abusive shoplifters will face tougher punishments and we are making assault of a retail worker a standalone criminal offence,” Mr Philp added.

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