The furore over Andrew Feldman’s role in Mark Clarke’s advancement has turned into a trial of strength between David Cameron and the media – and shows no sign of going away – see today, for example, here, here, here, here and here. So let’s step back and review the facts. Until the end of last month, the Conservative Party’s corporate position was that it would be premature for any of those involved to do or say anything much until a CCHQ inquiry, the police, and the coronor investigating the death of Elliott Johnson had reached their conclusions. This was sensible.
Grant Shapps’s resignation from the Government transformed this position completely. The core of his case was that he had been wrong to give Clarke power and prominence in last year’s general election campaign. Neither Downing Street nor CCHQ have disputed that promoting Clarke was a mistake: indeed, by the time Shapps quit Clarke had already been expelled as a member. (It is important to point out that the former insists he resigned voluntarily, contrary to early reports, and that this version of events makes sense.)
However, the original backing of Clarke’s RoadTrip 2015 and its later absorption into Team 2015, which Mark Wallace described on this site last summer, were not decisions taken by Shapps alone. It is a matter of record that both were signed off by the Party’s Senior Management Team, on which Stephen Gilbert, Lynton Crosby and Lord Feldman sat alongside Shapps. Feldman was indisputably the senior Chairman – as his chairing of the Party’s Board indicated – with the ultimate say over money and decisions.
It follows that if backing Clarke was indeed a mistake, the buck for the decision stopped with Feldman, not Shapps – a view, by the way, that friends of the latter are not contradicting. For this reason, ConservativeHome believes that Feldman’s position as Chairman is unsustainable. You may agree or disagree with the view. But, either way, you will note that it applies irrespective of what exactly Feldman knew when – the question which, as Nick Boles wrote yesterday on this site, the BBC and others are now pursuing.
There is no doubt that complaints about Clarke were made to Feldman before last August. His defence, in a nutshell, is that they were not the most serious ones: in other words, claims of institutional bullying and sexual harrassment. No conclusive evidence has emerged to prove him wrong, and I should add that I have always found him to be straightforward. But this is beside the point – which, again, is not that Feldman necessarily acted wrongly, but that he should accept responsibility for decisions he took and which the Party accepts were mistaken.
What happens next? Ben Howlett, who has claimed that Feldman did know about the most grave allegations, is keeping mum. So has Sayeeda Warsi, who was co-Chairman at the time of Clarke’s removal from the candidate’s list. Both are doubtless saving their evidence for the inquiry, which must be right. The BBC, the Daily Mail and others will continue to try to prove that Feldman’s account of events is inaccurate. But there seems to this site to be little point in flogging this dead horse. The inquiry, and perhaps the coroner, and maybe the courts, will decide.
Which leaves the question of whether Feldman really is a dead horse or not – or rather a dead Chairman, in political terms at any rate. His position is a miserable one. He bears responsibility not only for the rehabilitation of Clarke, but for the Party’s palpable failure to have any workable system for safeguarding its young activists. Any independent inquiry worthy of the name will have no option but to say so – at which point his position will no longer be defensible, however hard David Cameron may strive to make it so.
Furthermore, he may be called to give evidence in public before the coroner, which would probably take him and the Party into the same territory. And there is a more immediate concern. CCHQ cannot forward the Feldman Review of the Party’s structure, or go about its daily businesses as effectively as it might, while the Party Chairman is embroiled in an internal inquiry, preparing his position in the event of being called by the coroner, dealing with police enquiries – and watching his authority crumble under the weight of daily media stories.
It would thus be for the best were Feldman to go now. But the Prime Minister will not want to hand the scalp of one of his oldest friends to the media pack under pressure. The following may happen. At some point next year, when the hubbub has perhaps died down, the Chairman may quietly go – or as quietly as is possible in the circumstances. One thing is certain: the longer the delay, the greater the damage. It seems that our readers agree: last month, Feldman scored the biggest-ever fall in our Cabinet League Table.