Tatler Tory storm rocks Baroness
Party hands bullying inquiry to law firm – but the chairman is still in the firing line
TORY bosses last night finally caved in and ordered an independent inquiry into the ‘Tatler Tory’ scandal, amid a frantic attempt to save the job of party chairman Lord Feldman.
After crisis talks lasting more than two hours, the Conservative Party Board said the investigation into the Mark Clarke affair would now be conducted ‘in its entirety’ by London law firm Clifford Chance.
The damaging sex, blackmail and bullying scandal has engulfed the Tories. No date has been fixed for the report’s publication following yesterday’s meeting – which was chaired by Lord Feldman, who is deeply embroiled in the saga and under pressure to quit.
Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 committee of Tory backbenchers, who sits on the board, said Lord Feldman’s position was not discussed despite some Tory MPs privately calling for him to go. Ray Johnson, whose 21-year- old son Elliott took his life in September after allegedly being bullied by Clarke, said he still feared a ‘whitewash’ and remained adamant that Lord Feldman should resign.
‘The fact that this inquiry is now independent or not is irrelevant to the fact Lord Feldman was in charge when my son was being bullied, intimidated and ultimately died,’ he said. He demanded guarantees there were no inappropriate links between the Tories and Clifford Chance, which will be paid hundreds of thousands of pounds.
He also voiced alarm the Tory Party had left itself ‘wriggle room’ to redact sensitive sections of the report into alleged bullying, blackmail and sex harassment inside its youth wing, Conservative Future. The inquiry was announced as: Allies of Lord Feldman denied he had been warned about Clarke’s behaviour a year ago in a memo by a senior aide to former co-chairman Grant Shapps
Tory MPs launched a co- ordi- nated campaign to keep the Prime Minister’s close ally in his job
A letter emerged showing how Ray Johnson had criticised the decision, shortly after his son’s death, to appoint Baroness Pidding – a close confident of Clarke – as a life peer.
The announcement of the independent inquiry was seen an attempt by the Tory high command to take the pressure off Lord Feldman, who Number 10 is determined not to lose. Senior figures have been alarmed that the resignation of Mr Shapps, who stood down at the weekend over claims he failed to act on bullying at Conservative Future, has not taken the heat out of the scandal.
Instead, the focus has shifted to what Lord Feldman knew about claims of bullying by Clarke, who is known as the Tatler Tory because the magazine once tipped him as a future Cabinet minister and who denies any wrongdoing. Some senior Tories believe that, as chairman at the time of Elliott Johnson’s death, the buck stops with him and his position is untenable.
On Sunday, the party had been defending its decision to hold an internal inquiry into the scandal. At that stage, Clifford Chance was only to review the investigation.
However, last night the party said it was handing over the inquiry in its entirety to Clifford Chance. Lord Pannick, a cross-bench peer, will oversee it. Party bosses added that Lord Feldman and deputy chairman Rob Halfon – who Clarke allegedly tried to blackmail over an affair he was having with a Tory activist – will excuse themselves from the board meeting when it considers the findings.
Sources at the meeting said Lord Feldman denied knowing about claims of Clarke’s behaviour before this summer.
One insider said if evidence was found to the contrary he would have no option but to resign. The source added: ‘ Fundamentally if this report finds that isn’t true, the way forward would be obvious.
In a statement, the party said: ‘The board would like to express its profound regret at the tragic death of Elliott Johnson and sends its deepest condolences to his family and friends. The board wishes to ensure that its investigation into events surrounding Elliott’s death and the alleged activities of
‘He was in charge when my son died’
Mark Clarke and others is, and is seen to be, timely, objective, and comprehensive and independent.’
Around a dozen activists and witnesses had given evidence to the internal inquiry. They will now be given the chance to give evidence again to Clifford Chance.
There are a series of known links between Clifford Chance and the Tories. In 2012, it sponsored a party conference event and has also sponsored Reform, the political think tank set up by Tory MP Nick Herbert.
Last night Clifford Chance said it had also sponsored events at Labour and Lib Dem conferences.
‘The way forward would be obvious’
Bullying scandal: Mark Clarke with Baroness Pidding