Sex, rivalry, drinking and roistering have distinguished youth politics, for time immemorial, at least as much as debate, policy, campaigning and outreach. I should know; I’ve been there – though the Federation of Conservative Students, in which matters sometimes went a bit further than that, was disbanded not under my chairmanship but under that of, ahem, John Bercow.
Thirty years or so on, the suspension from their posts of Conservative Future’s leadership team, which took place yesterday, offers a dim echo of that decision, but in a darker context – that of the suicide of Elliott Johnson, a Conservative activist, earlier this year. This terrible end of a young life has been followed by a stream of allegations about Mark Clarke, who was reportedly named in a letter written by Johnson before his death and found by his parents after it.
These claims reach far further than the usual youthful mix of high spirits and bad taste, and include institutionalised bullying, harassment, assault and attempted blackmail. Clarke is a former Chairman of Conservative Future, a Parliamentary candidate and, recently, the organiser of RoadTrip 2015, the campaigning vehicle which was rolled into Team 2015 at the last election. He denies the allegations.
The Mail on Sunday and Guido Fawkes have reported some of them. Yesterday evening, Newsnight provided more – some made on the record by Ben Howlett, the Conservative MP for Bath (and a former Conservative Future Chairman himself). Earlier in the day, the Party declared that Clarke’s membership of the Party has been “cancelled for life”, suspended the Conservative Future leadership team and withdrew authorisation for RoadTrip “in the light of information that has come to our knowledge this week”.
The coroner has yet to report on Johnson’s death, a police investigation into the allegations is possible and until yesterday the Party had reached no decision on them – though it did suspend Clarke’s membership in September. We consequently thought it premature to comment on the claims, though we have linked to them on the site.
But now that Clarke’s membership has been “cancelled for life” (how is it possible to guarantee such a decision, by the way?), two main points arise. First, the Party has commissioned two reports on the allegations since Johnson’s suicide – the first overseen by Lord Feldman, the Party Chairman, and Simon Day, its Chief Executive; the second undertaken by Edward Legard, a judge. If the latter is nearing any conclusions, the Party hasn’t said so.
It has the authority to expel members swiftly. This is sometimes necessary. It may have been in this case. But, on the face of it, it is against natural justice to have an expulsion first and the report afterwards, rather than the other way round. Furthermore, the decision seems to have satisfied none of the parties involved.
Ray Johnson, Elliot Johnson’s father, has described it as a “whitewash”. The suspended Conservative Future team can scarcely be happy. And Clarke himself will surely not welcome his own exclusion. Second, it is obvious that this is a story with more distance to run. Howlett told Newsnight that he first raised concerns about Clarke in 2010. Each member of the Conservative Future team will have a view on their treatment – and on much more. So will other young activists and CCHQ employees.
And so, of course, will Clarke, who now has nothing to lose by giving his version of events. This leads to the second point. Sometimes it is enough for a report to be delivered to the Party and for it then to respond. And it should go without saying that Legard should submit a formal report as soon as possible.
But the Party will now have to go further. It will be institutionally reluctant to issue any report. CCHQ will not want to see dirty linen washed in public. But without a report, closure won’t happen: yesterday’s decisions may be right or wrong, but they certainly won’t bring it. The allegations are likely to get bigger and louder. The absence of findings will only fuel claims of a cover-up. Lord Feldman should get that report as soon as possible and publish its contents.
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