When Grant Shapps suddenly resigned as a Minister in the wake of the suicide of Elliott Johnson, he insisted that he was unaware of allegations of bullying, sexual abuse or blackmail. These had been levelled at Mark Clarke, a political colleague of Elliott’s, with whom the former had quarrelled. Shapps wrote in his resignation letter that “responsibility should rest somewhere” for the decision to incorporate Clarke’s RoadTrip 2015 organisation into the Party’s target seat operation. “Over the past few weeks – as individual allegations have come to light – I have come to the conclusion that the buck should stop with me,” he wrote.
However, the upgrading of RoadTrip 2015, and the allocation of substantial sums of money to support the move, was made not by Shapps alone but by CCHQ’s top management team, which consisted at the time of Lynton Crosby, Stephen (now Lord) Gilbert and Andrew Feldman, as well as Shapps. Since Feldman was the more senior of the two Party Chairmen, it was evident that the buck actually stopped with him. For this reason, ConservativeHome took the view that if resignations were in order, then Feldman should offer his. Our readers apparently agreed: soon afterwards, he fell to the bottom of our Cabinet League table.
Whether Shapps and Feldman were or weren’t aware of specific allegations about Clarke was irrelevant to this line of argument. None the less, an inquiry was set up under the auspices of Clifford Chance. Only after pressure from this site and elsewhere was it given the powers necessary – in short, to send for documents (and not just examine those presented to it by CCHQ); to take written evidence directly and to interview witnesses, and to have the full run of CCHQ – including access to computer records.
The inquiry has now reported. A summary of its findings – not the full report – has been issued. It concludes that neither Feldman nor Shapps were aware of “allegations of bullying or harrassment of young activists”. But as this site anticipated, the compliance culture has now come to CCHQ. There is to be a code of conduct for volunteer leaders; a dedicated complaints procedure; a specific e-mail address for complaints, and a hotline; “rationalised internal reporting lines” and (needless to say) training.
Clarke declined to be interviewed by the inquiry. Johnson’s father has dismissed it as a ‘whitewash”. This is doubtless unfair, but there are some oddities. When the inquiry was announced in its final form, it was said that it would “make recommendations to the Board on measures that should be taken to strengthen existing processes”. There is nothing to this effect in the summary published. Rather, the compliance changes were issued separately by CCHQ, and presumably introduced before the inquiry concluded. A lack of confidence in it was clearly felt by others than Johnson’s family: “at least 12” individuals to whom the inquiry “particularly wished to speak” did not give evidence.
The political point arising from all this is that Clarke, despite his chequered reputation at CCHQ, made it an offer that was simply too good to refuse (or so it seemed at the time) – namely, the sending-in of busloads of activists to marginal seats. Party membership has drifted up in recent years, getting a new boost post-referendum. But too many members are concentrated in safer seats, or are inactive, or both. Feldman was a brilliant success as a fundraiser, eliminating the Party’s deficit, and came to understand it very well. But his appointment as Chairman always lacked legitimacy, since he has never held elected office and was simply put in place as a personal friend of David Cameron.
Theresa May’s appointment of Patrick McLoughlin as Feldman’s replacement is a clear signal that she wants to return to a more traditional model. The former Transport Secretary has been a member since his youth. He is not only a senior MP, but a former Chief Whip to boot. He thus has a solid sense of how Conservative MPs think. He knew Clarke from the pre-2010 election period and, had he been Chairman at the time, the bigging-up of RoadTrip 2015 would not have happened, at least in the form it took. McLoughlin inherits the Feldman Review. He must now build on the best bits of it to solve the problem to which Clarke seemed to be the answer.