Boris Johnson has bowed to pressure and suspended former deputy chief whip Chris Pincher from the parliamentary party over an allegation that he drunkenly groped two men.
Mr Pincher had already been forced to quit his role in the Tory whips’ office – in which he was responsible for party discipline and the smooth running of government business at Westminster – after the claim emerged this week.
Now, after a formal complaint was made against him to parliament’s Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme (ICGS), he will be forced to sit as an independent outside the Conservative group.
A spokesperson for Chief Whip Chris Heaton-Harris said: “Having heard that a formal complaint has been made to the ICGS, the PM has agreed with the chief whip that the whip should be suspended from Chris Pincher while the investigation is ongoing.
“We will not pre-judge that investigation. We urge colleagues and the media to respect that process.”
Former housing minister Kelly Tolhurst has been appointed as the new Tory deputy chief whip.
Earlier, Mr Johnson’s official spokesman had said that the PM “does think he’s [Mr Pincher] done the right thing in resigning and has accepted that resignation”.
Downing Street rejected claims that the prime minister was not taking the allegations seriously enough, as Labour and some Tory MPs insisted the whip must be removed.
A Number 10 source later said that Mr Johnson had been prompted to take further action after he had “taken soundings” and been told of the formal complaint.
Mr Johnson was also under pressure to explain why he gave Mr Pincher such a sensitive post earlier this year amid reports that he had been advised not to do so. The PM’s spokesman said it would not have been appropriate “to stop an appointment on the basis of unsubstantiated allegations”.
Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner said the prime minister had been “dragged kicking and screaming into taking any action at all” and that the scandal was “yet more evidence of his appalling judgement”.
Liberal Democrat chief whip Wendy Chamberlain said: “It should never have taken Boris Johnson this long to act and withdraw the whip.
“Once again it seems Johnson has had to be forced into doing the right thing.”
Earlier, Tory MPs Karen Bradley and Caroline Nokes – the only two Conservative female chairs of backbench select committees – criticised what they called the “inconsistent and unclear approach” by their party to such incidents.
In a letter to Mr Heaton-Harris, they said the current approach risked causing “serious reputational damage” to the party and the government and urged him to introduce a code of conduct for all Conservative MPs.
The MPs urged that in the meantime the party should adopt a “zero tolerance” stance.
“Once an investigation has been completed, a decision should be taken about returning the whip, but in the meantime anyone subject to such an investigation should not be allowed to sit as a Conservative MP and represent the party in any capacity,” they said.
Mr Pincher, 52, resigned from his role as deputy chief whip on Thursday and apologised after admitting he had drunk “far too much” and “embarrassed myself and other people” on a night out.
Mr Pincher “groped two men in front of others” at the Carlton Club in the St James’s area of central London, a government source told Sky News.
One of those groped is an MP, and the second one may also be a member of parliament, the source added.
Sky News has been told that the episode had added to the number of Tories who have lost faith in the PM – on top of the 148 who delivered a no-confidence verdict in a bruising revolt last month.
Meanwhile, Neil Parish – whose resignation as an MP after he admitted watching pornography in the Commons chamber resulted in the Tories’ by-election mauling by the Liberal Democrats in Tiverton and Honiton, accused the party of “double standards”.
Mr Parish told Sky News that after Mr Pincher had helped to organise the PM’s survival of a no confidence vote “the chief whip, the prime minister and everybody was involved in trying to save Christopher Pincher whereas Neil Parish was entirely expendable”.
At the last election, Mr Pincher was returned to his Tamworth seat with a majority of more than 19,000 and this could be vulnerable if he were to step down, coming after two recent bruising by-election defeats for the Tories.
This is the second time the MP has quit the whips’ office.
In November 2017, Downing Street said he had “voluntarily referred himself both to the party’s complaints procedure and the police”.
The Mail on Sunday reported that Mr Pincher had been accused of making an unwanted pass at Conservative activist and former British rower Alex Story.
Mr Pincher told the newspaper: “If Mr Story has ever felt offended by anything I said, then I can only apologise to him.”
Theresa May reappointed him to the whips’ office the following year.