LONDON — Blackmail, extramarital affairs, bullying, cover-ups, and sex on a pool table—three senior Conservative Party officials are gone and one young activist is dead after a series of lurid accusations were detonated inside party HQ.
It is alleged that the party’s boys (and girls) on the bus spiraled out of control during this year’s election under the direction of Mark Clarke, a former parliamentary candidate who oversaw teams of young activists sent to bellwether races.
A Conservative Party insider told The Daily Beast that Road Trip 2015 descended into a dystopian bacchanalia with Clarke bullying and manipulating his young charges, who were encouraged to have sex with Members of Parliament and senior party officials who agreed to join the campaign trips.
“It was known to the MPs that if you want a young boy or a young girl the Road Trip could provide that. You come for a campaigning weekend. You’ll be taken care of,” said Ben Harris-Quinney, chairman of the Bow Group, Britain’s oldest conservative think tank. “It involved the use of very naïve young people and it became a sexual buffet.”
Gossip about these garrulous trips was encouraged by Clarke—who told the conservative Spectator magazine in June 2014 that his project was “a bit of a dating agency.”
Nudge-nudge, wink-wink morphed into a scandal that would reach the upper echelons of the Conservative Party when Elliott Johnson, a former Road Trip activist and political writer, committed suicide on Sept. 15. He was 21 years old.
In a letter addressed to his parents and left on his bed, Johnson wrote: “I have been bullied by Mark Clarke.”
Two months earlier, Clarke was being feted by Prime Minister David Cameron for a Road Trip campaign that was hailed as decisive in the Conservatives’ shock election victory.
In numerous statements, party officials said they had received no warnings about Clarke’s behavior until August this year when several people, including Johnson, made complaints about bullying, sexual harassment, and attempted blackmail.
In the aftermath of Johnson’s death, the party’s former chairman, Grant Shapps, resigned from the Cabinet; the deputy chairman, Robert Halfon, admitted to cheating on his partner amid alleged attempts to blackmail him by Clarke; and the entire executive team that runs the party’s youth wing, Conservative Future, has been suspended.
Elliott Johnson’s father, Ray, has also called for the current party chairman, and close personal friend of Cameron, Lord Feldman, to resign for failing to act upon years’ of evidence that Clarke should not be placed into a position of responsibility over young people.
Clarke, 38, is now banned from the Conservatives for life, although he denies all of the allegations made against him. It is the end of the road for one of the party’s former “rising stars.” After being elected as chairman of Conservative Future, he was featured by Tatler magazine as a potential Cabinet minister in 2008. The spread in the high society bible earned him the nickname “the Tatler Tory.”
Clarke was already developing something of an unwanted reputation, however. Harris-Quinney, who is also a Conservative councilor, clearly remembers the first time he met Clarke at the exclusive West End nightclub Mahiki, a favorite haunt of Prince Harry.
“He behaved in an extraordinary fashion. He was incredibly arrogant—I actually heard him say to a young girl, ‘I can get you a job in parliament.’ And 10 minutes later he was passionately kissing her in the corner of the club. He did the same thing with two other girls in the same night,” he told The Daily Beast.
Nonetheless, Clarke was selected as the Conservative Party’s prospective parliamentary candidate in Tooting, South London, ahead of the 2010 election.
Another witness, who encountered Clarke during that campaign, said: “He was rude and creepy to the girls in our rabble and made a big deal about being a Tory candidate, and was a right wanker.”
A senior Conservative aide, India Brummitt, 25, resigned last week when reports emerged that she and Clarke were interrupted while having sex on a pub pool table during the campaign.
Clarke was never expected to win in Tooting, a safe Labour area, but he ran the campaign in such an aggressive and deceitful manner that he was referred to the electoral watchdog and cut from the party’s national candidates list.
Lady Warsi, the chairman of the Conservative Party in 2010, said she was well aware of Clarke’s reputation at the time. “He was effectively persona non gratis, as far as I was concerned,” she told the Guardian last week. “He was always a disaster waiting to happen, and this was common knowledge.”
Warsi’s candor flatly contradicts the professions of ignorance made by the two men who would follow her as party chairman.
Unbowed by the black marks against his name, Clarke was determined to make a comeback—he launched what he described as his “project Lazarus.” The Conservatives’ activist base has dwindled away in recent years, leaving the party unable to fight a good ground game in many of the most crucial swing seats. By setting up Road Trip independently, without the help of Conservative Central Office, he was able to work his way back into favor.
The sexually charged party atmosphere of the campaign trips was designed to encourage the young activists to return and apparently made the prospect of a few days of door-knocking more appealing for senior politicians. It was crucial for Clarke that his project was given authority by regular visits from senior figures within the party.
Clarke’s own sexual appetite reportedly spiraled out of control. He is married with two children, but at least three young activists have reportedly filed formal complaints against him for unwanted sexual advances. Two of them told the Daily Mail that he had bragged about his success in cheating on his wife by using what he called his “IIP technique” on women—“Isolate, Inebriate, and Penetrate.”
Beneath the debauched veneer of the Road Trips lurked allegations that Clarke was bullying and controlling. It is alleged that he tried to exert control over as many people as possible, and to leverage that for more influence within the party.
Allegations that Clarke encouraged young activists to have sex with senior party officials remain unproven. Robert Halfon, a Cabinet minister, has been forced to admit that he had an affair with Alexandra Paterson, a close associate of Clarke’s. The former deputy chairman of the party claims he was the victim of a blackmail attempt by Clarke, who tried to arrange a photograph of the couple leaving one of London's private members clubs together.
The Mail on Sunday reported this week that a second Member of Parliament was allegedly blackmailed over an affair by Clarke. The newspaper has agreed not to publish his name under threat of a court injunction.
Warsi made it clear that she had known about Clarke and says she warned Shapps when he replaced her. Halfon has become embroiled in the scandal. That’s two chairman and a deputy chairman, and yet the party still maintains that it has no formal complaints about Clarke that date back before the summer. The current party chairman, Lord Feldman, is the latest to come under pressure as his claims of ignorance are also beginning to unravel.
A young Conservative MP, Ben Howlett, who was chair of Conservative Future until 2013, has gone on the record on the BBC to explicitly state that regular complaints about Clarke were made to the party hierarchy.
“We’ve complained about him for a long period of time,” he said. “I complained when I was national chairman directly to Sayeeda Warsi as the party chairman, I complained directly to the chairman’s office when Grant Shapps took over as the party chairman, and I have to say Lord Feldman has been well aware of all this for a very long period of time.”
“It was unfortunately swept under the carpet.”
On Monday, the Conservatives announced that an independent inquiry into the party’s handling of the affair would be overseen by a law firm. Lord Feldman, Prime Minister Cameron’s tennis partner, never did report back on his own internal inquiry. He should have been well-placed to do so with his own intimate involvement in the campaign, as well as that of his sister’s, who also had a high-profile role.
After Clarke’s repeated brushes with trouble in the past, he faced a new round of difficulties in August when Conservative Campaign Headquarters received a number of complaints against him.
One of those was from Elliott Johnson, who said he had been assaulted by Clarke in the Marquis of Granby pub in Central London in front of dozens of fellow activists.
Soon after he had filed the complaint, he was confronted by Clarke, who seemed to know exactly what had been said about him. A similar experience was reported by those who made sexual assault allegations and felt CCHQ was leaking their formal complaints straight back to the man they had accused.
Johnson decided to withdraw his complaint. That did not go down well with officials at CCHQ, who had already arranged to speak to a number of witnesses about Clarke. Johnson was now being told by party officials that he must come into the office for an interview, while simultaneously telling Clarke that he was trying to withdraw the complaint.
At this point, Johnson went to meet Clarke and an associate, Andre Walker, who was also supposedly a friend of Johnson, to discuss the impasse. He wanted that conversation to be heard.
One of Johnson’s last acts on earth was to post a memory stick with a secret recording of that showdown to his boss at Conservative Way Forward. During the conversation, Clarke appears to threaten Johnson but it is Walker who is most aggressive, calling Johnson “a fucking dickhead” and comparing him to a traitor and a Nazi sympathizer. “Do you know what happened to all the French in Vichy France?” he asked. “They got shot.”
In that final letter to his parents, Elliott Johnson tried to explain how agonizing it could be for one of the many young people allegedly used and then abused in order to salvage Mark Clarke’s political ambition.
“Now all my political bridges are burnt,” he wrote. “Where can I even go from here?”
This article has been amended. Robert Halfon admitted cheating on his partner, not his wife as originally stated, and he has retained his position as the party's deputy chairman.