The Mark Clarke scandal has moved from the Sundays to become a nightly stream of stories across the dailies, each more horrific and shocking than the last. My very real concern, as someone who has got to know Elliott Johnson’s father, Ray, through my radio show, is that too many people seem intent on settling old scores that have little if anything to do with the circumstances that gave rise to Elliott’s tragic suicide in September. Some even seem to be getting off on the mayhem they are causing as they unleash grudges they have borne for years. They should be ashamed of themselves.
I am aware of a small number of individuals, none of them alleged victims of physical or sexual bullying by Clarke, who are briefing against those who had the courage to raise complaints with CCHQ and the police after they said were physically or sexually bullied by him – allegations that Clarke strenuously denies. Maybe these score settlers might like to examine their own consciences and reflect on whether their own conduct has been truly blameless. I doubt it. Whose is? And perhaps they might like to remember, as they set about smearing others, that nothing that they are doing is lessening the Johnsons’ grief. If anything their behaviour is compounding it. When some of their wilder allegations are shown to be false, these people need to realise that they risk the success of any proceedings that might ever be brought against anyone who might held responsible for Elliott’s death. And a 21 year-old boy is sadly still dead.
Few people come out of this ongoing nightmare with much credibility. One person who perhaps does deserve some praise, despite the mauling he himself has endured this week in the press, is Grant Shapps’ former Chief of Staff, Paul Abbott. Whatever the rights and wrongs of his tenure as Shapps’ right-hand man, it was Abbott who passed Elliott Johnson’s complaint to CCHQ in August and encouraged other alleged victims to come forward. If it were not for Paul Abbott, Mark Clarke would still be director of RoadTrip 2020.
This inconvenient fact is overlooked by Ben Harris-Quinney – yes him again – the man who famously bellowed “I am the President” during Andrew Neil’s delicious skewering of him on The Daily Politics just days before the election. I have written about the absurd Harris-Quinney many times before in this column. He has turned the Bow Group from a moderate, influential and grandee-stuffed think tank into a socially conservative, impotent and irrelevant vehicle for Harris-Quinney to seek airtime for himself. He speaks for nobody but himself. The Bow Group’s once proud letterhead now only has two Tory grandees on it – Normans Lamont and Tebbit. How long until they see sense and distance themselves from Harris-Quinney? And his committee is all male – something one might refer to as “a sausage fest”.
I understand that the new MP for Bath, Ben Howlett, has not had the easiest of weeks at Westminster. Howlett fingered Sayeeda Warsi, Grant Shapps and Andrew Feldman on Newsnight last week, saying that he had reported instances of bullying to them which they had failed to investigate. The whips are furious. I also suspect he won’t be on Lord Feldman’s Christmas card list this year.
My only previous knowledge of Howlett was when he was seeking adoption in a number of seats prior to the last election. He was sifted for interview in Eastbourne, once represented by Margaret Thatcher’s close friend, Ian Gow. Gow was killed by an IRA car bomb in 1990. Eastbourne Conservatives decided not to select Howlett as their candidate. One reason was that he had publicly announced that the politician he most admired in Northern Ireland was Gerry Adams – well reported at the time on Guido Fawkes. When he was asked why, he said that he admired the courage of his convictions (and no that was not apparently a pun). Howlett assured Newsnight that on his watch there was no bullying and he presided over calm when he chaired Conservative Future. If there is one thing journalists cannot stand, it is cant. Hopefully, for his sake, no bullying incidents come to light.
The Times reported yesterday that a party activist had reported concerns about Mark Clarke a year before CCHQ has admitted to receiving any such email. And this despite a supposedly rigorous search of the party’s email server. If this (and maybe other) emails didn’t show up in this search it can lead to one of two conclusions. Either the search wasn’t very rigorous, or emails have been deleted. The latter is something The Times are alleging. They write: “Reports emerged yesterday that before the general election a senior figure in CCHQ ordered staff to “cleanse” their inboxes frequently by deleting all emails to prevent leaks.” Of course anyone who knows anything about deleting emails will be aware that deleted emails are actually no such thing. They may be deleted from the Inbox, but they still reside somewhere in a dark corner of a server. This is where both the Police and the CCHQ internal inquiry ought to be directing their attention. Or will internal party technogeeks get there first? Paul Abbott has stated that he was ordered to delete emails, but that begs the question, by whom? His immediate boss, Grant Shapps? Lord Feldman? Someone else?
I don’t know where this scandal will end up, but there is more chance of high profile casualties i.e. resignations than there was a week ago. Every single major newspaper and media outlet is investigating and trying to find witnesses or victims who haven’t yet been identified. I imagine both Lord Feldman and Grant Shapps are having a few sleepless nights. If it emerges that either of them knew about allegations and didn’t lift a finger they would be political toast. It’s clear that those at the top of the party are happy to let Shapps swing in the wind for this, whatever the truth really is. All scandals have at least one casualty and they regard him as collateral damage. It’s the second time in six months they have been happy to ‘stiff’ him. What was it Jeremy Thorpe said about ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his friends for his life’? Shapps is expendable. Feldman, being a close personal friend of the PM, is not. Isn’t politics a disgusting business sometimes?
I suppose I could now take the piss out of John McDonnell. But why bother. He does it so well himself.