The “Tatler Tory” at the centre of allegations of bullying in the youth wing of the Conservative Party allegedly used his personal connections to the scurrilous Guido Fawkes political blog to threaten people who challenged him, according to claims being examined by lawyers hired by the party.
The Independent has been told by several people with knowledge of the alleged bullying and blackmail scandal engulfing the party that Mark Clarke used his friendships with individuals in the media to intimidate his opponents, and those who threatened to expose him.
There is no evidence that the Guido Fawkes gossip blog – required reading for Westminster followers – ever ran untrue smear stories pushed by Mr Clarke, the Conservative campaign director who has been banned from the party for life following the suicide of young activist Elliott Johnson. However, sources close to Clifford Chance, the law firm appointed by Conservative Campaign Headquarters (CCHQ) to investigate the scandal, confirmed that they would explore Mr Clarke’s media connections as part of the probe.
Mr Clarke, 38, a consultant at Unilever, denies all the allegations and is not commenting until the conclusion of an inquest into Mr Johnson’s death. However, Mr Clarke is close friends with Harry Cole, who was previously employed by the Guido Fawkes blog (alongside its founder Paul Staines) and now works at The Sun newspaper. Both men previously belonged to the Young Britons Foundation (YBF), the so-called “Conservative Madrasa” founded by Donal Blaney, who is currently the chairman of the right-wing pressure group Conservative Way Forward (CWF).
Mr Cole was given an award by the YBF in 2012 and dedicated the “Golden Dolphin” gong to Mr Clarke.
Both Mr Clarke and Mr Cole also played active roles in the Trade Union Reform Campaign (TURC), described by a CCHQ insider as a “hit-and-run lobby group” aimed at changing the funding and legal status of trade unions.
The TURC’s chief executive was Mr Clarke, with Mr Cole given the title of Parliamentary Liaison Officer.
Since their days in the YBF, the two men have remained close. They play for the same cricket team, the Westminster Wolverines, and after one of their charity matches in July last year, Mr Clarke, Mr Cole and Paul Abbott, the former boss of CWF, were all photographed on the platform of Didcot Parkway train station celebrating a victory.
The other individuals who appear in the station photograph have no connection to the Tory scandal.
Mr Abbott was in charge of CWF when he brought Elliott Johnson on to the staff to write ThingsElliottSays – a Guido-style blog.
Shortly before his death, Mr Johnson had been made redundant from this job. His parents said their son had told them he might be hired by Mr Staines’ blog.
The Guido blog has frequently run negative stories about rivals of Mr Clarke, including a piece about a City of London councillor who Mr Clarke allegedly regarded as a potential enemy. The blog called him “bonkers”.
Another alleged Clarke target was Ben Harris-Quinney, the chairman of the Tory-leaning Bow Group.
Mr Cole, known as “Tory Bear” in his early blogging days, is now the Westminster Correspondent of The Sun, breaking regular exclusives about the Tatler Tory scandal – several based on documents that could only have been obtained from people close to the centre of the scandal.
Although the tabloid has written extensively about the links between Michael Clarke and Mr Elliott, and questioned the ability of the Tory chairman, Lord Feldman, to take responsibility for an endemic bullying culture, Mr Cole has yet to mention his own association with Mr Clarke.
Friends of Mr Cole said he had made “no secret of the fact they were close friends for 10 years” – but said they fell out in July last year.
The legal probe was ordered after Elliott Johnson, a young Tory activist who worked for the RoadTrip2015 campaign, took his own life in September this year. He left a letter which claimed Mr Clarke had bullied him. Former Conservative Party chairman Grant Shapps resigned from his ministerial post last weekend amid claims that the party hierarchy had failed to act on warnings about Mr Clarke’s conduct.
But Elliott’s father Ray Johnson said the blame should rest with Lord Feldman –a friend of David Cameron who was co-chairman with Mr Shapps until the general election in May – and has called for his resignation.