David Cameron has been told by eurosceptic Tory MPs to “be kind to Boris” Johnson after the “bruising” the London Mayor received in the House of Commons over his support for Brexit.
The Prime Minister tonight confronted members of the Conservative 1922 committee of backbench MPs, knowing a large number are disappointed their leader will campaign to stay in the European Union.
His 25-minute face-to-face with around 100 Tory MPs in a Westminster backroom followed straight after a statement to the House of Commons marked by his brutal attacks on Johnson, the hugely popular politician who will oppose Cameron and campaign to leave.
After the meeting, Conservative MP Steve Baker, one of the party’s most prominent eurosceptics, revealed he had urged the PM: “Please be kind to Boris.”
The MP for High Wycombe added that Cameron was “warm” to the idea and his suggestion was “greeted with levity”, pointing out the PM’s over-arching message was to be “mutually respectful in a robust contest”.
But he acknowledged there would be “moments of high passion and drama” as the Tories stand on opposite sides in the months leading up to the June 23 referendum, and the campaign won’t be “pure as the driven snow at all times”.
Baker, co-chair of the Conservatives for Britain group, told reporters: “I said: ‘I know it’s hard, but please be kind to Boris'. There was a peal of laughter.
“He said: ‘Of course I’ll be kind to Boris’. He’s going to be respectful to all colleagues. It’s very clear the Prime Minister’s intention. - it’s that we be mutually respectful in a robust contest that helps the country to make the right choice for our country.
"The Prime Minister was absolutely clear that he respects people being in different sides.”
Boris Johnson listening to the Prime Minister set out his case for staying in the EU
Speaking about the relationship between the London Mayor and Cameron, he added: “They are people who have known each other for a long time, and it’s about high drama. And I felt for Boris. He’s taking quite a beating at the moment in the press, and obviously he took a bit of a bruising in the Commons. But he’s a big man and I’m sure he’ll bounce back from it.”
Baker argued that Johnson’s stance was “out of principle and true belief” since it was “perfectly clear he’s paying some price for it”.
“He’s a great inspiration to many people. Like Heineken, he reaches parts others don’t,” he went on.
Baker denied the “be kind” plea was indicative of a “backlash” among Tory backbenchers.
He said: “There are going to be moments of high passion and drama and it’s not going to be possible for the campaign to be as pure as the driven snow at all times. But we are going to be respectful of one another, measured and cautious. And sure we concentrate on the issues.
When asked whether the Prime Minister heeded the call, Baker said: “It is quite clear to me there is no malice from the PM on this. I can’t tell you that I have never been a bit sharp with somebody. Nobody here is without sin, are we? Everyone is capable of being a bit sharper than they meant.”
David Davis, the Tory MP and long-standing “out” campaigner, told HuffPost UK afterwards: “If the Prime Minister wants mutual respect he must lead by example.”
Cameron arrived at the meeting after being on his feet for more than two and a half hours in the Commons as he answered questions on the deal he secured in Brussels last Friday.
As the entered the room to meet with Tory MPs at 6.30pm, he was greeted by the sight of some of the party's most vocal eurosceptics - Baker, John Redwood, Philip Davies and Sir Bill Cash - sitting together in a row facing the door.
Mr Baker was even wearing a large Vote Leave badge on his jacket lapel and while he joined in with the customary banging of the table as the Prime Minister entered, Davies and Sir Bill did not.
After removing his jacket to speak, the Prime Minister acknowledged the different views on the EU deal within the room, but urged for mutual respect in the months ahead.
It was at this point that Baker urged the PM to 'be kind to Boris'.
One Tory backbencher who was in the room told the Huff Post UK that: "Cameron didn't quite say sorry for what he had said to Boris, but he said something along the lines that people will lose their heads a few times between now and the referendum."
Mr Cameron said the party needed to keep its focus on June 24 - the day after the referendum - and not get completely sidetracked by the campaign.
Gainsborough MP Sir Edward Leigh drew cheers when he reminded those in the room that "the real enemy is Corbyn."
The Prime Minister left the meeting in conversation with vocal eurosceptic Philip Davies, and even hugged the Shipley MP and told journalists "Love's breaking out" as the two embraced.