UK Politics

Party criticised in Conservative bullying allegations probe

Mark Clarke Image copyright Facebook
Image caption Mark Clarke ran RoadTrip, which took young activists around the country during the election

A Tory activist was given a key campaigning role despite warnings of his past "aggressive and bullying conduct", an inquiry has found.

Law firm Clifford Chance said complaints had been made about Mark Clarke on seven occasions before the party had investigated his behaviour.

The report was prompted by the suicide of activist Elliott Johnson, who said Mr Clarke and others had bullied him.

Mr Clarke has called the allegations in the report "wholly untrue".

He declined to be interviewed by Clifford Chance, although his solicitors told the inquiry he was continuing to co-operate with police investigating Mr Johnson's death.

Ray Johnson, Elliott Johnson's father, has told the BBC that - after reading the first few pages of the Clifford Chance report into bullying within the Conservative Party - he believes the investigation to be a "whitewash".

He also declined to take part in the Clifford Chance probe and has called for an external inquiry into the allegations.

Expelled

Mr Johnson killed himself in September 2015, a month after he wrote to Conservative Campaign Headquarters (CCHQ) complaining of an incident at a public house, where Mr Clarke was said to have been "rude and aggressive" towards him.

That complaint was investigated, and eventually resulted in Mr Clarke being expelled from the party for life.

The inquiry, which was commissioned by the Conservative Party and is published on its website, found no evidence that either Grant Shapps or Lord Feldman, co-chairmen of the party at the time, were aware of specific allegations of Mr Clarke bullying young people before August 2015.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Elliott Johnson was found dead on railway tracks in Bedfordshire last September

Investigators say they identified 13 individuals who had been alleged to be victims of bullying, harassment or inappropriate conduct by Mr Clarke, and found evidence that seven of those complaints had been reported to CCHQ prior to Mr Johnson's complaint.

None of those complaints resulted in an investigation by the party's Disciplinary Sub-Committee.

Several of the complaints were, at least in part, dealt with by Mr Shapps's chief of staff, Paul Abbott, the report says.

According to the report, Mr Abbott "worked closely with Mr Clarke to attempt to coordinate the activities of RoadTrip 2015" - the campaign being run by Mark Clarke to bus young activists around the country in support of Conservative candidates.

'Calculated risk'

In one case, Mr Abbott met the alleged victim and said the allegation "sounded quite bad" but that he did not consider them a "hugely reliable" witness. That complaint was not investigated.

When they interviewed him for the RoadTrip role, Mr Shapps and Mr Abbott had been aware of a confidential CCHQ file on Mr Clarke, compiled when he was a 2010 general election candidate, which included reports of "aggressive and bullying conduct", the report says.

Image caption Elliott Johnson (right) was seated behind Mr Shapps as he addressed the Conservative conference in 2014

On 13 August 2014, Mr Shapps told the party's campaign chief, Sir Lynton Crosby, who was concerned about Mr Clarke using the title "director of RoadTrip", that he was aware of Mr Clarke's reputation but the view had been taken that he was a "difficult individual who delivered".

Mr Shapps resigned as international development minister in November last year over the allegations, saying that "alarm bells" should perhaps have rung sooner and as the man who appointed Mr Clarke, when he was co-chairman, the "buck should stop with me".

According to the Clifford Chance report, Mr Shapps viewed RoadTrip 2015 as an "opportunity for rehabilitation" for Mr Clarke and believed that working with him on the project was a "'calculated risk' to be taken to help build the campaign network".

'Tragedy'

The report finds that Lord Feldman, who was replaced as party chairman in Theresa May's reshuffle, "was informed of a few instances of potential misconduct" by Mr Clarke, but not of allegations of bullying or harassment.

In response to the report, the Conservative Party said it was establishing new procedures for handling complaints by volunteers, including a dedicated hotline and training for relevant party employees.

New Conservative Party chairman Sir Patrick McLoughlin said: "The death of Elliott Johnson was a tragedy, and our thoughts remain with his family and friends.

"As we address the findings of this report, I want to make clear that there can be no place for bullying behaviour in our party, and we all have a responsibility to act when it occurs.

"The actions we are taking today will continue to ensure that volunteers, who are so vital to our party, can flourish."

In a statement, Mr Clarke's solicitors said: "The police investigation into Elliott Johnson's death and other inquiries are ongoing, and it is not appropriate to respond to allegations until the end of those processes.

"However, the allegations made against Mr Clarke in the Clifford Chance report are wholly untrue and unsubstantiated. Many are based on totally fabricated media reports. All these allegations are vehemently denied."

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