Shortly before the General Election, Alistair Lexden, the Conservative Party’s official historian, wrote an article on this site called “The lost election-winning machine of Sir Anthony Garner”. It was a tribute to the former Director of Organisation at what was then Conservative Central Office – “Mrs Thatcher’s most senior official” – and a hymn to a vanished age of mass campaigning and election landslides. The Party Chairman when Sir Antony was at the height of his powers was Cecil Parkinson, a trusted colleague of Margaret Thatcher but an emerging heavyweight in his own right (indeed, a potential leader at one point). The Chairman now, Andrew Feldman, is a close confidant of David Cameron but, by contrast with Parkison, has never held elected office. Then, Party membership was over a million; now, it is perhaps 150,000 or so. Then, there were separate Young Conservative and Conservative Student organisations. Now, there is only one – Conservative Future.
Nostalgia can deceive: by the time Thatcher became leader of the Party, a year before Sir Anthony took over, its membership had been falling for the best part of 20 years. But the contrast between its condition then and now is the best starting-point from which to consider the continuing allegations of institutionalised bullying, sexual harrassment and blackmail that radiate from the central figure of Mark Clarke. (It is important to note that he denies these claims.) This site warned last week that his expulsion would not end them – and so it has proved. It is easy to get lost in the developing charges and to miss a central point, which is that the Party claims that it was unaware of any serious claim against Clarke until August. CCHQ is emphatic on the point; others contradict it. There is a Party investigation. There are also police inquiries. And there is a coroner’s enquiry into the event that gave impetus to the claims – the tragic suicide of Elliott Johnson, about which Iain Dale writes on this site this morning. We will see what events bring.
None the less, one point is already clear. Clarke came to CCHQ with an offer of mass canvassing. His previous removal from the candidates’ list might have led to it being refused. So might a series of complaints about him. And the enegetic focus of a 38-year old Unilever executive on people up to 20 years younger might have been raised eyebrows. But with membership concentrated in London and the South-East, and a mass of Midlands, Yorkshire and Northern marginals to win, Clarke’s offer of deploying a mass of activists, many of them young people, was plainly too good for CCHQ to resist. He was greeted like a prodigal son – perhaps not quite the right parallel, since that biblical figure left his family home by choice and Clarke departed the candidates list on compulsion, but a suggestive one none the less. Sources at CCHQ and Downing Street are now dumping blame on Grant Shapps, who is himself dumping blame on others, but it is evident from Mark Wallace’s study of the campaign, published this summer, that they were, to coin a phrase, “all in it together”.
That’s to say, Feldman, Shapps, Lynton Crosby and Stephen Gilbert, who together made up CCHQ’s top management team and signed off important decisions, were involved in the decision to bring Clarke back. This returns us, once again, to Sir Anthony Garner, and the contrast between then and now. In his day, CCO had a youth department. Tim Cowell minded the students; Mark Worrall looked after the YCs. Both, like the grand National Union Executive Committee panjandrums of their time, kept a certain distance from their charges. But they also made it their business to know what was going on: after all, it was part of what they were paid to do. They have no real successors. There is no youth department. Until the summer reorganistion of the Party, the person in CCHQ responsible for managing Conservative Future was Stephen Phillips, the Secretary to the Party’s Board, who CCHQ describes as head of the voluntary party. How on earth could an overtasked Board Secretary, with so wide a range of responsibilities, be expected to track what was going in CF?
Now think on. Imagine that you are a young activist who has been threatened or assaulted by a more senior one. Where do you go? Who can you trust? Who will keep your confidence – especially given claims of leaks? CCHQ’s answer is that complaints should be addressed to someone called the Presenting Officer. How could a frightened and confused young person be expected to know that? The post is not visible on the Party’s website. It doesn’t turn up in a google search. Talking of computer inquiries, CCHQ won’t comment on claims that staff were instructed before the last election regularly to delete e-mails: “an investigation is currently underway and it is not appropriate to comment until we can establish the facts”, it told ConservativeHome. But we understand that the practice became customary during the last Parliament, and intensified during the run-up to the election – on the ground that records should be kept safe from investigative journalists and Labour moles at a time when the tightness of the coming poll was working CCHQ into a frenzy.
The practice is not confined to Matthew Parker Street. For example, Downing Street staff are asked to delete e-mails after about 90 days – though, in both cases, copies are kept on servers. Some will argue that this custom is only prudent; others will assert that it is highly questionable. But either way, this story of flawed accountability structures, confusing reporting arrangements and unusual record-keeping procedures points to an uncomfortable truth for the Party. Slowly but steadily, and over many years, CCHQ’s campaigning capability has been narrowed. Building up longer-term capacity in non-target seats, or among young people, or with business – and so on – has been stripped away so that the kitchen sink can be hurled at a tiny minority of voters in a small proportion of seats. Amidst such a short-termist culture, no wonder Clarke was given his head. The Party looks increasingly like an athelete who pumps up one part of his body while letting the rest of it run to seed. That way lies illness – perhaps terminal.
On this site before the election, a candidate in a marginal seat complained of being ordered to hand over funds he had raised to a target seat, and of candidates being ordered to support the party’s by-election efforts or risk removal from the list. Our columnist, Rebecca Coulson – another former candidate – wrote of “bullying, rudeness and coercion”. There is a sense of members being used as a means to an end. The Party needs a culture change, driven right from the top. It may instead get reform that is merely structural. There will be admission of a failure to safeguard young people – or the finding of it, at any rate. Watch for the appointments of a senior complaints officer at CCHQ. There will be “safe spaces”. Intern appointments will be monitored more closely. The Party’s anti-bullying policy is already being ramped up. The compliance culture is coming to the Conservative Party. In a way, this is a pity. Political parties should be light on their feet, not weighed down by box-ticking. But it is now inevitable. Clarkegate has revealed a Party culture not fit for purpose.