Grant Shapps, a former Tory chairman, has resigned from the government in disgrace in the wake of revelations that he had been warned about bullying in the party before the death of one of its young activists.
He was forced to quit as a minister for international development after the father of 21-year-old Elliott Johnson claimed his son would still be alive if Shapps and Andrew Feldman, the current Tory chair, had behaved responsibly when made aware of the behaviour of one its senior organisers.
The two men were co-chairs of the Conservative party at the time that the young Tory activist was allegedly being targeted by Mark Clarke, who ran the party’s RoadTrip initiative, responsible for ferrying activists around the country during the general election campaign.
In an exchange of letters with the prime minister, Shapps continued to maintain his innocence in the affair but tendered his resignation on the grounds that “responsibility should rest somewhere”.
He wrote: “Although neither the party nor I can find any record of written allegations of bullying, sexual abuse or blackmail made to the chairman’s office prior to the election, I cannot help but feel that the steady stream of those who raised smaller, more nuanced objections should have perhaps set alarm bells ringing sooner.
“In the end, I signed that letter appointing Mark Clarke director of RoadTrip and I firmly believe that whatever the rights and wrongs of a serious case like this, responsibility should rest somewhere. Over the past few weeks as individual allegations have come to light, I have come to the conclusion that the buck should stop with me.”
Nick Hurd has been appointed to replace Shapps as minister at the Department for International Development.
Johnson, a blogger for a Tory pressure group, was found dead on railway tracks on 15 September. In a note found after his death, he accused Clarke of bullying him.
Until this weekend the Conservative central office had repeatedly claimed that it had no warning of Clarke’s alleged behaviour before Johnson’s death. However, on Friday evening the Guardian revealed that the Tory peer Sayeeda Warsi had written to Shapps, her successor as party co-chair, in January to demand action be taken against Clarke for abusing her on Twitter, and had not received a satisfactory response. Lady Warsi said Clarke was a “disaster waiting to happen and this was common knowledge”.
The scandal appeared to have moved a step closer to the prime minister’s door after it emerged that Cameron had written to Clarke to thank him for his work during the election, saying: “We quite simply could not have done it without you.”
The first sign of Shapps’ downfall came at a press conference at lunchtime on Saturday in Malta, where Commonwealth leaders are attending a summit. Repeatedly asked by reporters to offer the minister his full support, Cameron, who had been due to talk about efforts to combat corruption, pointedly refused to do so.
A visibly discomforted Cameron instead told reporters that he “felt deeply” for Johnson’s parents. “On Grant Shapps there will be a statement made later on today about that issue,” he said. “‘I think it is important in the tragic case that took place that the coroner’s inquiry is allowed to proceed properly. The Conservative party has an independent inquiry under way under the oversight of a senior legal figure.
“I feel deeply for his parents. It is an appalling loss to suffer, and that’s why it is so important that there is the proper independent inquiry. In terms of what the Conservative party should do, there needs to be and there is a proper inquiry to ask all the questions and interview all the people who come forward, and that will take place. There is an independent lawyer from Clifford Chance who will oversee that process and make sure that it reaches clear conclusions from the evidence that comes through.”
Asked to respond to Johnson’s parents’ demands for Shapps’ resignation, Cameron added: “What I would say is that it is a tragic loss of a very talented young life and it is not something that any parent should have to go through, and I feel for them deeply.
“What the Conservative party must do and is doing is ensure that there is a proper investigation into this issue, into the allegations that were made and who they were made to and all the rest of it, and that is why it is being overseen by a senior lawyer from Clifford Chance, and we will act on the findings of that inquiry.”
In his resignation letter, Shapps writes that he had given Clarke – who as far back as 2010 had been the subject of complaints about his behaviour – a “second chance”.
He wrote: “In July 2014 I gave a second chance to former candidate Mark Clarke. Having been removed from the candidates list following the 2010 election, Clarke had gone on to establish a campaigning organisation called RoadTrip2015. He presented himself as having learned from his past experience, being more mature and wanting to prove himself again.
“After some discussion, I appointed him in order to incorporate RoadTrip into our wider campaign. The aim being to better coordinate his activity with our rapidly expanding Team2015 target-seat operation.
“During this summer and autumn, there have been widely reported, very serious allegations made about the conduct of this former activist, who has subsequently been expelled from the party. I appreciate that there are ongoing coroner and party investigations under way, yet whatever the outcome of these processes, I doubt any of this will bring much comfort to the Johnson family whose loss is simply unimaginable.”
Johnson’s father, Ray, speaking from his home in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, said the end of Shapps’ career was “not the end of it”. He said: “It’s about time, he should have resigned several weeks ago. It’s typical of these politicians, they cling on to the greasy pole for as long as they can.
“Eventually, they get kicked off or dragged off. The fact that they hang on does no one any favours. It makes them look less dignified. It justifies our view of Grant Shapps. But there are others involved and we need to ensure there’s a clearout of all these unsavoury characters at CCHQ. There are other people involved in this scandal and we’ll take one pin down at a time if need be.”
In the prime minister’s formal response to Shapps’ resignation letter, he said the former chairman had made a big contribution and had “much more to give in the years ahead”.
A spokesman for the prime minister said he had full confidence in Feldman, a longstanding friend of Cameron’s.
Clarke has denied all the allegations against him.
This article was written by Daniel Boffey in Malta, and Jamie Grierson in London, for theguardian.com on Saturday 28th November 2015 16.33 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010