The best part of two weeks ago, the Conservative Party set up an inquiry into the allegations of institutional bullying, blackmail and sexual harrassment that surround Mark Clarke. We argued that its conclusions should eventually be published. Yesterday, in the wake of Grant Shapps’s resignation, we stressed that it must be fully independent. And this morning, we explained what independence would look like: the inquiry would be conducted by a person or organisation separate from the Party, and have the authority to send for documents, interview witnesses and have full access to all relevant information.
So we were pleased that the Party conceded publication yesterday – subject to protecting vulnerable witnesses, the Coroner’s inquiry into the death of Elliot Johnson and the consequent police investigation. And this afternoon, the Party Board effectively granted the inquiry the independence which this site and others have championed. Clifford Chance will conduct the investigation “in its entirety”. No Party officials “will be involved in this process, other than as witnesses”. Clifford Chance will take witness statements and review written evidence. Furthermore, Lord Pannick, the crossbench peer, has agreed to certify that this process “is objective, appropriate and comprehensive”.
ConservativeHome understands that Graham Brady, Charles Walker and Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, the Parliamentary Party’s three independent Board members, pushed hard for the appointment of an independent overseer, such as Lord Pannick – supported by Rob Semple, the Chairman of the National Convention, and Lord MacGregor, the Chairman of the Association of Conservative Peers. Andrew Feldman volunteered to recuse himself and Rob Halfon from the Board meeting which will consider the Clifford Chance report. There will be a separate review of the Party’s governance arrangements by “an independent third party specialist”.
There are one or two wrinkles. For example, Clifford Chance “will review all interviews already conducted and give those already interviewed the option to be reinterviewed”. It would be best for them simply to start from scratch. Today’s announcement may or may not satisfy Ray and Alison Johnson, Elliot Johnson’s father and mother. But it is a real advance and is extremely welcome. Downing Street will have been instrumental in drawing up the package, and doubtless realised over the weekend that the game was up. It could have saved itself a lot of trouble had it taken this site’s advice earlier.
The announcement of the inquiry marks the close of a chapter in this story, but we are a very long way from reaching the end of the book. We wait to see who the specialist is who will chair the governance review: whatever the truth about the Clarke allegations, that about the Party’s processes is already clear. With no complaints officer in place, the leaking of confidential information and no proper oversight of Conservative Future until recently, the Party has evidently failed in its duty of care to young people in its charge. As ConservativeHome has written before, the compliance culture is coming to CCHQ.
Who will be Party Chairman when it does? Number Ten threw Shapps to the wolves – in the form of negative briefing – in order to keep Feldman on the sledge. We have argued that since the buck for rehabilitating Clarke evidently stopped not with Shapps but with Feldman, his position is untenable. Some readers agree, others don’t – and we will soon publish our latest survey Cabinet rankings, which include those of the Party Chairman. But either way, he cannot be looking forward to dealing with police enquiries, facing the judgement of the Clifford Chance report on the Party’s institutional failings, giving evidence publicly before the Coroner – and facing yet more resignation calls.
He must surely feel, in the immortal words of Elvis Costello, that “I would rather be anywhere else/But here today”. For all David Cameron’s determination to cling to his friend and colleague, it may be that the Chairman stands down quietly – or as quietly as is now possible – before the hearing or the report, whichever comes sooner.