Until yesterday, the Conservative Party’s position on the Mark Clarke allegations was that it would be premature for any comment to be made, or action to be taken, until the coroner’s inquiry into the suicide of Elliott Johnson, police enquiries, and its own internal inquiry were complete. ConservativeHome believed that this stance was sensible – since no formal judgement has yet been reached on the claims.
Grant Shapps’s resignation has transformed this position. Last week, his friends were resisting him leaving his post as a Minister, insisting that he alone was not to blame for the events of which Johnson’s suicide was a part. Yesterday, he resigned in a move clearly forced on him by Downing Street, as David Cameron’s words at a press conference confirmed. In his resignation letter to the Prime Minister, Shapps writes that he was mistaken to rehabilitate Clarke. He adds that therefore “responsibility should rest somewhere. Over the past few weeks…I have come to the conclusion that the buck should stop with me.”
Shapps says that this is so because “I signed that letter appointing Mark Clarke Director of RoadTrip 2015″. However, he was not solely responsible for the decision to bring Clarke back – still less for amalgamating RoadTrip 2015 into the Party’s bigger venture, Team 2015. As Mark Wallace demonstrated on this site as long ago as last June, in his comprehensive account of how the General Election was won, “CCHQ…co-opted the RoadTrip2015 campaign model – which had been developed by Mark Clarke, the Parliamentary candidate in Tooting in 2010, during the previous year – and which delivered activists from elsewhere to campaign in target seats.”
CCHQ has not denied that this decision – in effect, to bring Clarke into the heart of the election campaign – was made by its senior management team. This then consisted of Stephen Gilbert, Lynton Crosby, Shapps and Andrew Feldman. As we pointed out near the start of this controversy, Feldman was the more senior of the two Chairmen – chairing the Party Board, signing off all important financial decisions, overseeing all CCHQ’s workings. And he has in any event been the sole Chairman since last May. So the buck does not stop with Shapps. It stops with Feldman. Since this is so, it follows that his position as Chairman is now untenable.
However, the fate of a single Chairman matters much less than the effectiveness of the whole Party – not to mention doing the right thing. There are two main issues at stake. The first is the relatively narrow one of the Clarke-centred allegations. The second is the broader one of the responsibility which the Party has for its young activists.
On the first, it is plain that the Party can no longer be allowed to mark its own homework. Cameron was wrong yesterday to claim that “the Conservative Party has an independent inquiry under way”. It is a matter of fact that the inquiry is an internal one conducted by Party lawyers. It is being externally validated by one from Clifford Chance – but all that implies is a check on whether the processes are being correctly carried out. Ray Johnson, Elliott Johnson’s bereaved father, wants a fully independent enquiry, carried out by a figure wholly unconnected with the Party, which will examine allegations and publish findings. Only such an investigation now has the necessary credibility.
The Board of the Party meets tomorrow. A decision to set up just such an independent enquiry is now a test of its own independence (since the Board, after all, is ultimately responsible for the running of the Party). This brings us to the second main issue at stake – namely, the safeguarding of young people. As this site has shown, the Party has failed in this duty. Complaints made in confidence to senior party members leak. There is no identifiable person to whom claims of sexual harrassment or institutional bullying can be made. Conservative Future was not properly supervised in the run-up to the last election. Indeed, it appears not to have been supervised at all.
The Board therefore needs to authorise its own review of the Party’s arrangements for protecting the young activists who are under its care. The three independent representatives of the Parliamentary Party have a particular role here – Graham Brady, Charles Walker and Geoffrey Clifton-Brown. Brady is the Chairman of the 1922 Committee’s executive, Walker is a senior officer and Clifton-Brown is a committee member. Together, they speak on behalf of Conservative MPs. They should push for an overhaul of the due diligence arrangements (or lack of them) which the Party presently has in place for young activists. If there isn’t one, an independent enquiry into these, too, will become inevitable.
The main political parties are now taxpayer-supported. This being so, the Commons’s Constitutional Affairs Committee may now want to carry out its own hearings into what arrangements all those represented in the Commons – and not just the Conservatives – have in place to ensure the protection of the young people in their charge. But whether it decides to do so or not, the Conservative Party must now act, through the medium of the Board that governs it.
The wishes of bereaved parents cannot always be granted in events that follow the death of their child. But they should surely be in this case. “I feel for them deeply,” the Prime Minister said yesterday of Ray Johnson and of Alison Johnson, Elliott’s mother. This is so: he has himself lost a son. But deeds matter more now than words – or the protection of the friend who he himself appointed as Party Chairman.