An ally of Kemi Badenoch has insisted claims that she is a member of a WhatsApp group titled “Evil Plotters” despite telling Tory rebels to back Rishi Sunak is “all just silly gossip”.
Housing minister Lee Rowley described allegations that he is unofficially still operating as the Business Secretary’s campaign manager as a “self-indulgent conspiracy”.
Ms Badenoch, seen as one of the most popular Cabinet members with the party membership, has publicly criticised Conservative plotters for “stirring” by suggesting she could replace the Prime Minister.
But the Guardian has reported that she and Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove have messaged in recent weeks on the Evil Plotters messaging group.
Ms Badenoch was also said to have been holding regular lunches with key backers, including Mr Rowley and other ministers.
A spokesman for the Business Secretary did not deny she is in the WhatsApp group and argued it is part of a “targeted campaign” against her.
Mr Rowley denied he is a member of the WhatsApp group, telling Times Radio: “I’m not and it’s all just silly gossip.”
Asked if he is unofficially acting as Ms Badenoch’s campaign manager, he told LBC: “Kemi is a very close friend, she’s been a very close friend for many, many years.
“I think in that report you’re referring to I’m being told I’m going to lunch with people – of course I’m going for lunch with people, I meet people very regularly, I work with Kemi very regularly on policy, as I do with every other minister.
“This is all the sort of self-indulgent conspiracy thing that goes on in politics from time to time.”
Former culture secretary Nadine Dorries suspects the WhatsApp group is an “ironic nod” to the title of her book The Plot, in which she alleged Mr Gove was part of a cabal that orchestrated Boris Johnson’s demise.
Speaking to broadcasters at the weekend, Ms Badenoch insisted the plotters who talk her up as a replacement for Mr Sunak as he struggles in the polls “are not my friends”.
She urged them to “stop messing around and get behind the leader” but the Guardian report has put the spotlight on Ms Badenoch once again.
Her spokesman said: “This is exactly the sort of stirring Kemi was referring to when she told people to stop messing around on Sunday.
“Having lunch, speaking to MPs and having a parliamentary special adviser is not a plot, it is the day-to-day job of being a Secretary of State.
“This utter nonsense is clearly part of a targeted campaign against Kemi and anyone reading it should treat it as such.”
Mr Sunak is under intense pressure as his Conservatives lag around 20 points behind Labour in opinion polls.
Sir Simon Clarke, who served as a Cabinet minister under Liz Truss, publicly called for a new leader to take over as he warned the Tories face an electoral “massacre” under Mr Sunak.
Ms Badenoch did not deny that she has leadership ambitions on Sunday but described speculation on the subject as “all a distraction”.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman did not wish to comment on the WhatsApp group, but said that Mr Sunak “continues to work very closely with the Secretary of State”.