Conservative bullying scandal: How the 'Tatler Tory' Mark Clarke tried to take over the City of London

Clarke and the current secretary of Ukip led an attempt to propel right-wing candidates into the City of London Corporation

Simon Usborne
Friday 11 December 2015 20:27 GMT
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Mark Clarke, founder of the RoadTrip campaign, has been banned from the Conservative Party Conference
Mark Clarke, founder of the RoadTrip campaign, has been banned from the Conservative Party Conference

It is the oldest and perhaps the richest elected government body in the world. An area of London focused at its financial heart, where for centuries power and influence have taken seats alongside white ties and tradition at banquets attended by prime ministers, monarchs and the men who control our money.

But in 2013, a new force emerged in the City of London Corporation, rocking the establishment. Its name was the Young Britons’ Foundation (YBF), the controversial right-wing activist group known as the “Tory madrasa”. Its alleged leaders were two young friends called Matthew Richardson, now the secretary of Ukip, and Mark Clarke, the disgraced former activist at the centre of the Conservative bullying scandal.

According to multiple sources, including former and current senior figures inside the Corporation, Richardson and Clarke helped to co-ordinate an unprecedented and at times bitter attempt to propel to power a “slate” of right-wing candidates associated with YBF in the City’s 2013 council elections.

Several sources describe the operation as an “attempted coup”. They accuse members of the team, whom they say ran the campaign from YBF’s London headquarters, of using underhand tactics in targeting rivals as well as other candidates who refused to support them.

The Independent can also reveal that the City of London Police separately investigated an allegation against Richardson of harassment a month before the election and, on the eve of the vote, an allegation of common assault and threatening behaviour against Mark Clarke after an encounter he had with another candidate.

Both men deny any wrongdoing, and the police did not pursue charges in either case. The City of London Corporation has revealed that, as the bullying scandal in the Conservative Party took off, it asked the police to review the allegations against Clarke. Police concluded no further investigation was required.

 The City of London Corporation

The government body that sits among the skyscrapers of London’s financial heart is, depending on your view, a celebration of tradition and historic democracy, or an unaccountable anachronism.

The City of London Corporation  serves as a local authority with its own services and police force. But it also operates as a cheerleader and lobbyist for big finance, with a traditional aversion to regulation.

The Lord Mayor is chosen each year by the 25 aldermen elected in each ward in the City. A total of 100 common councilmen represent the wards, in numbers according to the size of each. They are elected every four years by the City’s few thousand residents and companies based there, which are mostly involved in finance. Each company is given votes according to the size of its workforce but it is up to management to decide who fills in the ballot paper.

Prospective councilmen, who must be freemen of the City, canvass to win a few hundred votes, making the City, on paper, one of Britain’s most accessible yet powerful bodies. The council, which meets in the Guildhall, has access to world leaders and cabinet ministers. 

Traditionally members are retired former City figures who run as independent rather than political candidates. But younger blood has arrived more recently, and the Labour Party has begun to put up candidates. 

The Corporation hit the headlines during its response to the 2011-12 Occupy protests outside St Paul’s Cathedral, when it faced criticism over its accountability and power. 

The alleged YBF slate included Donal Blaney, the founder and chief executive of the group. This week, the former chair of Conservative Future, the Tory youth wing also once led by Clarke, postponed the annual YBF activist training conference, disabled its website, and raced to distance himself from Clarke.

Other YBF-linked candidates in the City bid included India Brummitt, a long-time associate of Clarke’s, his friend Andre Walker, a former Tory aide, and James McLoughlin, a YBF “graduate” and lobbyist who is son of Patrick McLoughlin MP, the Transport Secretary. Neither Brummitt, Walker nor McLoughlin have responded to questions.

The City of London Corporation functions as a local authority as well as a global lobbyist for the financial sector. It has private funds of well over a billion pounds. Every four years, businesses and residents elect 100 “common councilmen” across 25 wards. An alderman in each ward is also elected and collectively they have power to appoint the Lord Mayor.

“It was Richardson’s stated plan to flood the common council with YBF members,” one source claims. “Everyone knew what they were doing and that it was part of his plan to become the youngest ever Lord Mayor.” “They treated it as game to win,” another source said. “It was quite extraordinary, and they were open about it.”

“If you can’t get elected to Parliament itself then being elected in the City can provide prestige and power,” an insider said. “It can be a good base on which to operate.”

Blaney, who founded YBF in 2003, strongly denied the claims. “At no time whatsoever has YBF ever run a slate of candidates in any election,” he said. “I suspect that this is yet another untrue smear from a politically motivated opponent who is looking to settle old scores.” He said he was not aware of any police complaints against any candidates.

Bryn Phillips, a former City council candidate who claims he was bullied by Clarke and his associates, told The Independent that Clarke’s reputation was widely known, and he should not have been appointed later to direct an official 2015 general election campaign for the Conservative Party.

The RoadTrip project involved young activists including Elliott Johnson. In a note he left before apparently taking his own life in September, the 21-year-old named Clarke and Walker, triggering a slew of further allegations against Clarke of bullying and sexual assault. Both men have denied any wrongdoing.

Grant Shapps, the former party chairman who recruited Clarke, has since resigned as a minister. The current chairman, Lord Feldman, remains under pressure. He insists he knew nothing of Clarke’s behaviour before August this year, despite several claims that he was aware of evidence dating back as far as 2008.

“When I saw all this in the news in September about Elliott Johnson it really upset me because I had been through something similar,” said Phillips, a former spokesman for the Occupy London protests who found himself running against Clarke in a City by-election in 2012, a year before the alleged YBF operation. “I experienced the nasty side of their behaviour.”

The alleged attempt by YBF to win power and favour in the financial centre came in the period between Clarke’s failure to become an MP in south London in 2010, and his re-emergence in 2014 as the director of RoadTrip.

But it dates back further. The BBC’s Newsnight revealed this week that one of Lord Feldman’s current staff had, while he was an activist, complained about Clarke during the 2008 campaign to elect Clarke’s replacement as chair of Conservative Future.

In the complaint, which the party said it had “dealt with”, Clarke was accused of “encouraging bullying” of the rivals of one of his allies, which he denies. That ally was Matthew Richardson, who lost the Conservative Future elections. Three months later, he made his first attempt to enter City politics, but lost his bid to become an alderman.

A year later he was back, and got elected as one of five common councilmen in the Coleman Street ward. Later, in 2012, he became alderman in the ward of Billingsgate after the incumbent John White decided not to contest the election. The Independent has heard claims from several sources that Richardson applied pressure on White to step aside. Richardson strongly denies this, calling it “fanciful”. He adds: “I have never used bullying or harassing tactics against to compel anyone to do anything. YBF has never run a slate of candidates in any election. I especially have never been involved in such a thing... and was overseas for a substantial part of the election period.”

Clarke also entered City politics in 2012, winning a by-election in the Farringdon Within ward, where he beat three candidates including Bryn Phillips. Phillips, who had decided to run to “make a point” about power in the City in the wake of the Occupy protest, accuses Clarke and Andre Walker of intimidating behaviour before and during the election. He also says that the men appeared, a week after Clarke’s election, at a court where Phillips received a community service sentence after taking part in the London riots the year before. “They sat among my friends, laughing and saying I was going to prison,” he says. “It was cruel. I couldn’t understand why they had turned up. The election was over.”

Clarke strongly denies all the allegations relating to the 2012 by-election and the 2013 elections, but did not respond to the claim that he turned up to Phillips’ sentencing. He said: “These allegations are false. I have not threatened, harassed or intimidated anyone.” Walker did not respond to questions.

Alex Deane, a lobbyist and former YBF board member, was also elected to the council in a 2011 by-election but it was during the 2013 elections that the YBF operation is alleged to have been built up. Deane also denies there was a YBF plot and insists the elections were “fairly fought”.

Clarke stood again in the Farringdon Within ward, while Walker stood with Brummitt in Cheap. It is alleged that the group targeted six wards in all. In one, Clarke and Walker allegedly threatened to “ruin” the chances of a rival candidate’s husband in another ward if she did not step aside. She did. Clarke denies that this happened.

The Independent has also seen evidence of a police complaint against Richardson, who it is alleged arrived with Clarke and Brummitt to threaten a candidate who had refused to support them. According to the complaint, Richardson threatened to “bury” the candidate if he did not comply. Richardson and Clarke strongly deny the allegation. Brummitt did not respond to questions.

In yet another ward, a candidate made a separate complaint to City police about threatening behaviour by Mark Clarke towards Ann Pembroke, a veteran councilman. Police pursued neither complaint.

As the 2013 elections approached, one source says that voters started to become “suspicious” about the organised campaigning of new candidates. In the end, every new YBF-linked candidate lost and Mark Clarke was deposed despite his convincing win the year before. “It was a relief to us all,” one source said.

A spokesman for the City of London Corporation said: “We have a robust code of conduct for members and will not hesitate to take the strongest possible action against bullying wherever –and at whatever level – it occurs.”

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