The Mark Clarke scandal:
the buck stops with CCHQ

James Deighton

It is clear to anyone who has been following the story of the Mark Clarke bullying scandal that CCHQ is now in full blown panic mode. Embarking on what would be generously described as a wide ranging damage limitation exercise.

Despite the resignation of Grant Shapps a constant drip, drip, of stories to the tabloids has continued. With the result that the party chairman Lord Feldman is being drawn into an increasingly untenable position.

CCHQ seems determined to stop at nothing to protect Lord Feldman, no matter what the cost, or consequences for the party, or its membership. They were only too willing to brief against Shapps before his resignation and without due process they removed the entire national executive of Conservative Future from their positions.

Now they have appointed 64 year old Lady Chisholm as the head of Conservative Future. Clearly irony is lost on them. At first this might seem a strange appointment, until you realise that before her elevation to the peerage she was the longtime head of the party’s candidates committee. Obviously as a trusted CCHQ insider she will do all that is required to stub out any potential sources of further embarrassment.

A few days ago she sent a message to CF branch chairmen stating that “it would not be appropriate for any CF branch to hold any social events for the foreseeable future, and we would request that any such events that are planned are cancelled.” However, in true CCHQ style it seems that the message was only received by relatively few chairmen; adding to the mounting evidence of CCHQ’s sheer incompetence.

It was quite obviously written by someone with absolutely no empathy for CF members, nor any idea as to how CF functions. This diktat is fundamentally wrong because it penalizes the vast majority of CF members, who are decent and hardworking members of the party, for the actions of a tiny minority of people connected to Clarke.

The conclusion that I and many others have drawn from this is that CCHQ wishes to disband CF because it wants to make it a scapegoat. By depriving the chairmen of their ability to organize meetings, and events they would be effectively killing off the group. But is this wise?

Over the past decade the party has seen a huge decline in membership. We are simply not replacing the members that are either dying or have left because of various policies the party has pursued in government. The obvious thing required to arrest this decline would be to make membership of the party a desirable thing once more. By allowing members a greater say in the party’s policies and by allowing them some meaningful benefits for their efforts in campaigning. A huge component of this has to be a vibrant and active youth group. The fact that CCHQ obviously don’t see this is shocking but no great surprise to those who have had to deal with them.

When I was an elected member of the CF national executive from 2010-13 I had a good insight into how CCHQ operated and interacted with the youth wing. The sad truth is that they see CF as a hindrance and something they would rather not have to deal with. In the same way that a bad business blames its customers for its failing. They give CF little thought, and even fewer resources.

Their centralising instincts meant that they preferred to only deal with the national chairman. To them that was sufficient consultation and interaction. The other two vice chairman and I were never invited to CCHQ meetings, and any consultation had to go through the CF chairman who reported to the party board. This reliance on just one figure, utilised to control the youth wing, has an eerie crossover with the Clarke situation.

Many people have asked how someone like Clarke was given so much power and could act with the full authority of CCHQ. The truth is that they needed Clarke precisely because they have presided over a rapidly declining membership. We simply don’t have enough foot soldiers to fight a ground campaign. Realising that CCHQ was both desperate for activists and clueless on how to address this problem Clarke was able to exploit the situation for his advantage by creating road trip. He was a means to an end, and as long as he delivered they were willing to overlook the inconvenient facts.

CF only found itself embroiled in this mess when CCHQ quite blatantly manipulated the last national elections in 2014. With Clark’s help they produced the result they wanted to ensure CF fully backed road trip. These elections were held at short notice in the summer, to minimise campaigning, and with very few ballots being issued. There is also very strong evidence that potential alternative candidates to those favored by CCHQ were bullied into not standing. Complaints were made at the time but surprise, surprise, CCHQ did nothing.

“The buck stops here” was popularised by US President Harry Truman, who kept a plaque with the phrase on his desk in the oval office. It’s about time that CCHQ abided by this principle, owned up to its failings, makes the changes necessary, and stops trying to pass the buck!

It was CCHQ that brought in Clarke. Not CF. The party’s young members should not be held responsible for their poor decisions.

James Deighton is the West Yorkshire Conservative Future Area Chairman and was National Conservative Future Vice Chairman – Best Practice between 2010 and 2013.

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The views expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Conservatives for Liberty