TORY infighting has continued following the dramatic leadership votes which saw Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt make it through to the final stage of the contest to be the next prime minister.
Despite denials by Mr Johnson’s campaign, there has been widespread speculation that his supporters worked to prevent his arch-rival Michael Gove making it on to the final ballot by backing Mr Hunt in the final round.
In a further sign of the acrimony within the Tory ranks, an investigation has been launched by chief whip Julian Smith after one MP called a colleague a ‘disgrace’ who should quit the party.
Antoinette Sandbach, who backed Rory Stewart for the leadership, published abusive messages she said were sent by a male colleague, apparently over her continuing opposition to a no-deal Brexit.
A screenshot of two messages read: ‘You too are a disgrace. Time you left the party I think.’
In a subsequently deleted tweet, Ms Sandbach said: ‘Barely is the ink dry on the results and the dark ops begin.
‘This is from a male Conservative MP to me as I sat on the train home #completew***spangle.’
She added: ‘It’s bad enough when you get it from complete strangers. Is it any wonder three female MPs left (the party).’
Mr Smith said the unnamed male MP’s comments were ‘totally unacceptable’ and promised an investigation and a meeting on Monday.
Ms Sandbach linked the abusive message to the underhand tactics she said were used during the Tory leadership campaign.
‘All the dark ops we have been hearing about don’t cast a good light on politicians and they don’t cast a good light on politics,’ she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
‘You can say it’s long been a feature of politics but I think we need to move on from that.
‘We’re in an age of far greater transparency — this isn’t the 16th century when you might have had Elizabethan spies, it’s the 21st century and we just want to get on with it.’
But Johnny Mercer, a supporter of Mr Johnson, denied there were ‘dark ops’ during the Tory leadership campaign.
He told Today: ‘I’m pretty close to Mr Johnson and the operation and the campaign, and I just haven’t seen it — I haven’t seen it going on, I’m not convinced it’s possible.’
Admitting some MPs may have ‘voted for different people at different times’, he added: ‘I don’t think there’s some sort of underhand operation and people like Mel Stride, who ran Michael’s operation, he has accepted that as well.
‘It’s a great story for the media, of course, as a sort of continuation of the drama from years ago, but in reality I don’t think it exists.’
Another supporter of Mr Johnson, Simon Clarke, has suggested some MPs may have ‘freelanced’ outside the official campaign.
In the final ballot of MPs, former foreign secretary Mr Johnson secured support from more than half the Tory Party in the Commons with 160 votes, while Mr Hunt had 77 votes — just two ahead of Mr Gove on 75.
Mr Gove’s decision to stand for the leadership in 2016 scuppered Mr Johnson’s campaign and it is thought the wounds have not healed, fuelling rumours the former foreign secretary’s allies were keen to exact revenge.
Suspicions were heightened at Westminster after Mr Johnson’s total in the final round of the secret ballot did not rise as much as expected.
At least five of Sajid Javid’s supporters said they would back Mr Johnson after the home secretary’s elimination from the contest, but the former foreign secretary’s vote tally only increased by three.
Mr Johnson and Mr Hunt will also take part in a head-to-head debate on ITV on July 9.
Labour campaign chief Andrew Gwynne said the country faced a choice between ‘the man who broke the NHS or the man who wants to sell it to Donald Trump’ and called for a General Election.
‘A handful of unrepresentative Conservative members should not be choosing our next prime minister,’ he said.