Today’s damning inquiry into bullying within the Conservative Party has raised serious allegations of sexual assault against the prospective parliamentary candidate Mark Clarke. The report also condemned the party for its failure to provide a functional complaint system.
Clifford Change, the law firm in charge of the investigation, have identified 13 alleged victims of Clarke’s, including six allegations of sexual assault. The report marks the end of a year of questions about bullying within the Tory Party. It also raises questions about the level of access Clarke, as head of “RoadTrip2015”, was given to data on young members. Having seen an advanced copy, Clarke has denied all allegations calling them “wholly untrue and unsubstantiated.” Clarke was viewed as a key witness but declined to give evidence to the inquiry.
The inquiry into Tory bullying was sparked by the tragic suicide of Tory activist Elliot Johnson. Johnson had named Clarke in his suicide note, accusing him of bullying behaviour. Prior to his death Johnson had sent a memory stick to his former boss, Paul Abbott. The memory stick contained a secret recording of Clarke pressuring Johnson to withdraw a formal complaint made by Johnson against him. This complaint alleged Clarke had pinned Johnson to a chair and threatened to “squash him like an ant.” The complaint was later withdrawn.
Investigators allege that Clarke’s behaviour towards Johnson was not a singular occurrence. Between the 1st January 2014 and the 14th of August 2015 the firm identified 13 victims, including 6 specific allegations of sexually inappropriate behaviour. These allegations suggest that Clarke had propositioned activists or tried to kiss them.
The party chief, Paul Abbott, was aware of these allegations but they were not referred to the disciplinary sub-committee nor was an investigation carried out. Abbott was also criticised by the report for a failure to provide “full and frank” testimony.
The report also revealed allegations about Clarke’s behaviour extending as far back as 2010. Clarke’s candidate file contained reports of aggressive and bullying conduct towards his then campaign director. Clarke supposedly made a compelling case to Conservative HQ (CCHQ), claiming he had settled down and wanted to return to the candidate list in 2015. The file was reviewed for “around 10 minutes” by Grant Shapps who described it as “very chequered reading.” Clarke’s ensuing work on the road trip, where he was placed in charge of young activists, was considered a way to prove himself.
Elliot Johnson’s parents declined to take part in the investigation being convinced that it would be a whitewashed by CCHQ. This worry led them in March to request Rob Semple step down from his role overseeing the inquiry. At the time Newsnight revealed several witnesses felt uncomfortable giving their evidence to Semple, possibly because of his prior links to Clarke. Semple had previously been elected chairman of the Conservative volunteer association with the strong support of Clarke. 12 of the witnesses Clifford Chance said they particularly wanted to speak to, including several alleged victims, did not give evidence to the inquiry. Semple denied he was still in contact with Clarke but recused himself from the inquiry.
The report is also critical of the Tory parties general approach to complaints. It reveals that the party had no formally published procedures for handling complaints and in there was also a lack of established common practice. There was no confidential email or telephone line to report complaints to, making it difficult for people to step forward. There was also no log made of complaints. This helps explain the failures in the case of Elliot Johnson, where Clarke could identify him as the complainant. Ray Johnson, Elliot’s father, criticised the Tory party saying: “The party has recognised there are failings but they are also saying they’ve done nothing wrong.”
The report has officially cleared several senior Conservative figures, confirming they did not know about the allegations. This may however be indicative of the failings in the formal procedures. The report acknowledges that senior figures were keeping an eye on Clarke, although this was only over his misuse of the title “director in CCHQ.”
The report also points to another case of alleged sexual assault, not involving Clarke, that was failed by the lack of procedure. Although the allegation was forward to CCHQ nobody met the complainant and the complaint was not investigated.
The Conservative party claims that it will build upon the reports findings in an effort to respond better in future. This includes creating a formal complaints network that does not leave a victim open to reprisals, as occurred in the Elliot Johnson case. It is worrying that a major political party has existed for this long without these mechanisms formally in place, especially given the serious nature of sexual assault allegations.
Questions have also been raised about why Mr Clarke was placed in charge of young activists despite his file making for “chequered reading.” The use of such an important role, around vulnerable young people, as a “means of proving himself” does not seem reassuring. It is currently unclear what will happen to Clarke as he has denied the allegations.