Earlier this week, the Daily Mail ran a new piece on the Elliott Johnson story to coincide with the release of a new, updated edition of Call Me Dave, Michael Ashcoft and Isabel Oakeshott’s biography of the Prime Minister.
Part of that story is about how CCHQ responded to the tragedy. A big decision, and one that is still in force, was the suspension of Conservative Future, the Party’s youth wing.
Now the Party has a new Chairman, and Patrick McLoughlin should make the re-activation or renewal of the young Conservatives a priority.
It’s very important that CCHQ learns the right lessons from the Mark Clarke fiasco: the problem wasn’t that the Tories had a youth wing, but that they outsourced responsibility for it.
Technically ‘Road Trip’ and Conservative Future were different things, but overall the Party provided too little proper oversight and support to either, allowing Clarke not only to run Road Trip but to get heavily involved in elections to the CF committee.
Yes, CF members would eat, drink, be merry, and “pair off”, as the Mail puts it, after campaign days. But a movement that appeals to young people is never going to resemble a church choir. The problem was that those in charge not so much blurred as erased the proper lines that marked them from their charges, and nobody stopped them.
But given the embarrassing headlines that can arise from an official youth wing, why should McLoughlin make it a high priority to make sure the Party has one? There are two arguments, one positive and one negative.
The positive case is that young people can be a huge asset, especially to a Party often viewed as being too much on the side of the older and better off.
Despite its scandalous mismanagement, in strictly campaigning terms Road Trip was a success. Rallying a flying column of energetic and committed young activists and deploying them to blitz marginal seats helped to compensate for weaknesses in our local activist base.
A properly-run youth wing is also a great way both to scout and develop future Conservative talent, helping people make a connection with the Tories at a young age which may persist into adulthood, and giving the Party an opportunity to invest in training cadres of higher-quality activists than would otherwise be available.
The negative case is simple but very important: that if CCHQ don’t invest in an official Tory youth wing, they make a gift of these activists to whoever is willing to step in and set up an unofficial one.
Whether the Party likes it or not, there will always be pro-Conservative young people who want an organisation to join. To the politically-minded the attractions of a group that offers development, companionship, and an opportunity to campaign with peers are obvious.
It was the Party’s disinterest in this sort of thing that allowed outsiders to move in. Donal Blaney’s Young Britons Foundation and Clarke’s Road Trip were both different models of how ambitious and well-organised men spotted a gap in the market for young Tories and moved in.
As CF remains officially suspended, we can see the same thing happening again.
Blaney, for example, is listed on the Board of Advisors of a group called Young Britons for Liberty (YBL) – the name’s similarity with the seemingly-defunct YBF may not be significant, but until relatively recently they were called simply ‘Young Liberty’.
Not that his involvement is obvious from the Generation Conservative site: no mention is made of any connexion to the Bow Group, with two young women listed as the only co-founders.
Of course, neither of these groups formally describes itself simply as the new Tory youth movement. Each has an ideological flavour and claims to stand, technically at least, outside the Party: “broadchurch” libertarianism for YBL, and “Deference, Tradition, [and] Pragmatism” for GC.
But if these are all that’s on offer, and they have the wit to offer a programme of socials that don’t have some ideological commitment test to get through the door, then these groups are what people will join.
If CCHQ really want to ensure that some lasting good comes out of what happened to Road Trip, it should make sure that it rewards and, even more importantly, respects people like Elliott and the energy, enthusiasm, and loyalty they offer by building a youth movement where they are valued, nurtured, and protected.
Otherwise, both history and current events make it quite clear that somebody else will try.