Grant Shapps maintained the loyalty of high-profile activists such as the “Tatler Tory” Mark Clarke by promising he would run for the Tory leadership if David Cameron lost the general election, parliamentary sources have claimed.
The former co-chairman of the Conservative Party indicated he could secure his supporters plum jobs at the top of the party in return for their allegiance, it is alleged.
Advisers to Mr Shapps did not expect him to beat Boris Johnson or George Osborne – and the idea of him leading the Tories now seems risible.
But Mr Shapps told those close to him that the databases of active Tory members that he controlled – with the help of those in charge of key general election campaigns – meant he would do better in a leadership contest than many expected.
As a reward for finishing strongly in any leadership race, Mr Shapps would anticipate a senior shadow cabinet post, allowing him to offer senior Westminster advisory jobs to the likes of Mr Clarke and fast-track their prospects of becoming Tory MPs in 2020. But when Mr Cameron won a convincing victory in May and quickly announced the demotion of Mr Shapps to the Department for International Development, his close supporters’ career plans were left in tatters.
One insider told The independent: “An aggressive war over who controlled the next generation of activists and campaigners broke out.”
Another activist previously loyal to Mr Clarke, said: “All hell broke loose when Shapps was demoted. He was Mark and others’ meal-ticket. There has since been a succession battle over how they all survive and how they regenerate themselves back into important roles.”
Elliott Johnson, 21, was part of the Clarke-led RoadTrip2015 which bussed young volunteers into key marginal seats. In September he was found dead on railway tracks in Bedfordshire, leaving notes to his parents which named Mr Clarke as someone who had bullied him, and alleging that others had betrayed him.
Mr Clarke denies any wrongdoing. He has been expelled from the Tory party. An investigation into the entire affair is now being carried out by the law firm Clifford Chance.
Earlier this month Mr Shapps resigned from his ministerial post. It was claimed that despite Mr Clarke previously being removed from a list of approved Tory parliamentary candidates, Mr Shapps had championed his appointment as the head of the RoadTrip campaign.
A spokesman for Mr Shapps said: “Shapps always believed the Conservatives would win the general election. In fact as party chairman Grant Shapps was one of the very few people who was so convinced of an outright Conservative majority for David Cameron that he famously placed a bet on it – and won.”
Those previously close to Mr Clarke in his early years as a Tory activist are now trying to distance themselves from him. Among them is Donal Blaney, currently chairman of Conservative Way Forward (CWF), the Thatcherite youth wing of the Conservative Party. Mr Blaney and Mr Clarke are both former chairmen of the main Tory youth movement, Conservative Future.
Mr Blaney, a lawyer, is also the founder of the Young Britons Foundation (YBF). On 7 December Mr Blaney told Iain Dale on LBC radio that he was “deeply sorry for having been friends with Mark Clarke and allowing Mark Clarke to be involved with the YBF”.
He claimed that CWF’s chief executive, Paul Abbott, and he were instrumental in “encouraging” people to make complaints about Mr Clarke. He said that without his efforts and those of Mr Abbott, Mr Clarke would be “at Chequers enjoying cocktails with the PM”.
Party insiders told The Independent they were also surprised at Mr Blaney claiming there was clear distance between him and Mr Clarke. In August this year Mr Blaney, Mr Abbott and Mr Clarke were in Washington DC together on an official trip organised by the YBF.
But by this stage relations were beginning to worsen. After the general election, both Mr Clarke and Mr Abbott expected to be given the post of CWF chief executive. Mr Blaney chose Mr Abbott. That decision, according to those close to both men, sparked a ruthless battle.
One insider said : “This is the tragedy of Elliott Johnson. Clifford Chance need to look at the war Elliott got caught up in. That’s where the answers lie.”