Boris Johnson has been accused of “running scared” over free school meals and benefit cuts, after he sent a bizarre message to Tory MPs accusing Labour of stoking Trump-style “hatred and bullying” by raising the issues in the House of Commons.
The message came as Mr Johnson ordered Conservatives to abstain in a pair of votes tabled by Sir Keir Starmer’s party for Monday, calling on the government to scrap a planned £20-a-week cut in universal credit and working tax credit and extend food vouchers or free school meals through the February half-term.
The votes are not binding on the government, but abstention is seen as a tactic to avoid the embarrassment of potential defeat for the prime minister, after the 50-strong Northern Research Group of Tory backbenchers called for the £20 coronavirus uplift to be kept.
But in his WhatsApp message to MPs, the prime minister sought to portray it as a means of stopping Starmer from “playing politics” with the issues.
He accused Sir Keir of unleashing an “army of trolls” from the left-wing Momentum movement following a similar vote last year.
Tory MPs complained then of receiving abuse on social media after voting against footballer Marcus Rashford’s bid to extend free school meals through the holidays.
And the PM compared the supposed risk of abuse with events “seen sadly across the Atlantic”, in an apparent reference to threats and violence deployed by hardcore supporters of outgoing president Donald Trump.
In his message, Mr Johnson said: “Folks I know that many of you are thirsting to give battle and vote against all Labour motions.
“But after the shameful way in which they used their army of Momentum trolls last time to misrepresent the outcome and to lie about its meaning and frankly to intimidate and threaten colleagues – especially female colleagues – I have decided not to give them that opportunity.
“We can be proud of what we are doing to tackle all the consequences of the pandemic and if labour decides to stop playing politics and to stop inciting the worst kind of hatred and bullying (of a kind seen sadly across the Atlantic) then I may think again about legislatively vacuous opposition debates.”
A Labour source said: “The Prime minister is running scared of his own backbenchers and seems to be saying he has no opinion on whether or not families can pay their bills.
“Motions passed by the House can’t be ignored. We urge Tory MPs opposed to this cut to vote with us on Monday.”