Not long before Elliott Johnson, the young activist at the centre of the Conservative bullying scandal, killed himself, he invited his friend Paul* over for dinner at his house in Tooting. Elliott had recently been made redundant from his job at Conservative Way Forward (CWF), a right-of-centre Tory pressure group, but seemed in good spirits overall. Paul laughs as remembers the meal Elliott prepared. "Really, the food was absolutely appalling, it was basically inedible. But it was still great fun, because Elliott was such good company. He was funny; he was kind; he was always impeccably turned out. A terrible cook, though."
Paul goes quiet. "I found a picture the other day, actually, of the Camembert he made that evening. It was such a disaster! It made me laugh, though, looking at it." He lapses into silence.
Johnson killed himself in September this year. Shortly before his death, he'd reportedly made an official complaint to the Conservative Party alleging bullying behaviour at the hands of Mark Clarke, the so-called "Tatler Tory". In August, the pair had had an altercation at the Marquis of Granby pub in Westminster because Clarke was frustrated that Johnson wouldn't run a story on the CWF website.
The bullying scandal cost Cabinet Minister Grant Shapps his job and threatens to take down other high-profile Tories, such as Chairman Lord Feldman. Johnson's parents have now boycotted the party's official inquiry into the affair, believing it to be biased.
To give me an idea of the culture of bullying that many say pervaded Conservative Future, Paul showed me a copy of a letter he sent to Lord Feldman, who is running the investigation into the allegations.
Paul claims that Clarke gave a 30-minute "presentation" at a conference in which he "smeared and denounced" a young female activist who was not present, at one point playing a "humiliating" video of the woman in question to the assembled guests.
"[He described her as] as a self-obsessed careerist who put her own personal gratification above the welfare of Conservative Future and the ideological purity of Thatcherism," writes Paul. "At the time myself and many others felt appalled but unable to speak out. Naively, many of us present, mostly young students, more or less accepted that this was the cutthroat way in which politics is conducted."
This is far from the worst example of bullying to be alleged against Clarke. There's a young Tory who believes Clarke was behind a blackmail plot in which he was duped into performing a sex act online . When he refused to pay a ransom, the video was leaked online. An unnamed 22-year-old woman who claims she woke up in an MP's bed with no memory of getting undressed. There are also allegations of assault and sexual harassment, and a blackmail plot including Tory minister Robert Halfon. And of course, the circumstances that led up to Johnson's death.
Clarke has adamantly denied all the allegations made against him, and has said he is not commenting on Johnson's death. He told VICE: "I have repeatedly denied any allegations of bullying, sexual harassment or blackmail. I continue to deny this in respect of your new allegations."
One sentence from Paul's letter stands out: "Just before he committed suicide, Elliott Johnson sent me a message on Facebook that read, 'I miss you xxx'. I have spent many long hours regretting that I did not ring Elliott at that moment and ask him what he was doing, and that I did not dissuade him from committing suicide. However, it is not I, but Mark Clarke, that is responsible for Elliott's tragic death."
Whether or not Paul's opinion is justified to any extent will become clear in the course of the party's investigation. But the events surrounding that death have thrown up evidence of a poisonous culture within the party's young wing. While many say that Clarke was at the epicentre of the rot, some activists pointed the finger at other figures within the party. One told me that since the revelations emerged, "I don't really know who to trust any more".
Isolate, Inebriate, and Penetrate.
Becky*, 20, joined the party when she was 15. "I'd go leafleting, telephone canvassing, particularly around the election. My fellow activists vary a lot – you get the really lovely down-to-earth people who want to make a difference, and the careerists and toffs who are in it for personal gain".
She'd heard about Mark Clarke before she encountered him – as I learn, Clarke's alleged behaviour was apparently common knowledge among the party grassroots – but this didn't prepare her for what happened when they met.
"At an event Mark groped me and asked my boyfriend if he could borrow me for the night," says Becky. "I guess it might have the alcohol talking, but it made me really uncomfortable."
Paul attended the annual Young Briton Foundation conference last December. Held at Churchill College, Cambridge, it attracts hard-right Conservatives with links to the influential backbench 1922 committee – the kind of people who raise a toast to Margaret Thatcher before supper – and until his downfall, Clarke was influential within the organisation. "We were staying there, and one person who at the time was a Cabinet Minister got up on stage and made a joke about leaving before everyone started hooking up. There was an atmosphere of everyone sleeping with each other – a really seedy vibe. It made me feel uncomfortable".
Consenting adults acting in a "seedy" way is one thing, and probably wouldn't have made national newspaper headlines. But it appears that what was happening may have gone much further.
At the epicentre of Clarke's alleged activities was Road Trip 2015, in which Clarke bussed in activists to campaign in marginal seats during the General Election. Some suggest that Clarke may have been able to get away with dubious behaviour for so long because of his near-magical ability to get activists out campaigning in target seats.
Tom Hulme* has campaigned for the Conservatives since he was 11. "After a few Road Trips I got the impression that it was all a bit of an excuse for people to go back to the hotel afterwards and inebriate yourself until you wake up in someone's bed the next morning." Tom mentions a toe-curling maxim that was used: "Isolate, Inebriate, and Penetrate."
Paul agrees there was a "huge culture of casual sex", pointing out that the problem wasn't "the casual sex per se, but the half joking, half serious way that people were being told to keep their eyes on certain MPs".
The culture of bullying permeated the young Conservatives' political activity as well. A number of activists I spoke to told me of being put under huge amounts of pressure to deliver a certain number of campaigners for an event, particularly around the General Election period. When individuals complained about Clarke, their emails were forwarded directly to him – with predictable consequences. According to Becky, "You report it to CCHQ and someone passes it over to him [Mark] and then he gets bullying tactics to get you to withdraw it."
Harry*, 17, shows me screenshots of a Facebook conversation in which Alexandra Paterson, then chairman of the party's Youth Wing, attempts to pressurise him into "unliking" a comment on Facebook that Clarke didn't approve of. "MC [Mark Clarke] watches everything", she warns. Paterson was 30 years old at the time, nearly twice his age.
Another activist, Nathan*, showed me a Facebook conversation in which Clarke uses bullying to drum up attendees for an event. Nathan is head of a university small-c "conservative" society that is not officially affiliated to the party, and when he says he won't be able to bring 50 supporters to an event, Clarke threatens legal action over use of the word "conservative" in the society's name.
Threats of action seem to have been part of Clarke's armoury. Paul told me: "I don't want to get sued for defamation. Because that's always what Clarke used to say about people. There was this atmosphere of, 'if you complain, you will get sued'."
All the activists I spoke to for this piece were angry that a few individuals' actions had dragged their party's name through the mud. Interestingly, however, the bullying allegations had not shaken their essential confidence in conservative politics and the Conservative Party. Becky told me although she couldn't understand "why more people didn't stand up to Clarke and stop him", she's still confident that senior Tories have her best interests at heart: "I just can't imagine them not caring."
Others are less forgiving, although not enough to leave the party. Hulme says, "as someone who's had mental health problems and anxiety issues, I know that if [bullying] happened to me I wouldn't be able to speak out." He tells me that when out canvassing for the Oldham by-election, people mentioned the bullying scandal to him on the doorstep.
"Tory activists are nice people, and then this group come along, and ruin everything for us... It makes me angry. They've put a massive shit-stain on our party's name, and I think that's really sad."
*Party activists with an asterisk by their name talked to VICE under an assumed name to protect their identities.
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