Richard North, 30/11/2015  

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Yesterday was the day when the Mark Clarke story went mainstream big time, with the entire front page of the Mail on Sunday dedicated to the story, and many other newspapers devoting front-page space to the story as well.

This was the story dismissed by journalist Julia Hartley-Brewer less than two weeks ago on the grounds that most voters "couldn't care less" as it is "hard to engage with [a] story about nonentities".

Well, those "nonentities" have led to the resignation of Grant Shapps, a Conservative minister, with the future of Lord Feldman, one of Mr Cameron's close political allies at stake. And as the scandal intensifies, with more people crawling out of the woodwork each day, the Conservative Party is tearing itself apart.

On this blog, we've been watching from afar, but have not reported on something that looks too much like intruding on private grief – grief which is palpable in the case of Elliott Johnson's parents, who are still mourning the loss of their son after his suicide brought about by events which are the subject of this major controversy.

However, when over the days and weeks one reads headlines about bullying, bitching, backstabbing, blackmail and betrayals in the Conservative Party, I have increasingly found myself thinking of Vote Leave Ltd – the Tory element of the "leave" campaign.

The reason for this is that much of the behaviour reported in respect of Mark Clarke and those around him is manifest in those associated with the Vote Leave referendum campaign. There is an extraordinary cross-network of Tory activists, where the same names keep cropping up again and again, many of which are actively involved in the "leave" campaign, or close supporters of key figures in the campaign.

For a start, one of the organisations which occupies a central role is the Young Britons' Foundation, "inspired by the success, drive and spirit of the American conservative movement" and founded by two activists, Donal Blaney and Greg Smith.

This organisation had Mark Clarke as its "director of outreach" but it also boasted Daniel Hannan as its president, a man no stranger to bullying and blackmail. This is the free market champion who has done his level best to silence this blog, by demanding of my sponsors that they cease funding me unless I come into line – a stratagem so far successful in that I am no longer funded.

Another voice which keeps cropping up is the Guido Fawkes blog, where the financial and business relationship between its founder, Paul Staines, and Vote Leave Ltd founder, Matthew Elliott, have been well established by The Boiling Frog.

Crucially – as reported by The Boiling Frog - we see the blog writing pieces in support of Vote Leave, while also writing various uncomplimentary pieces about rival Arron Banks and his operation.

However, co-editor of Guido and author of many pieces is Harry Cole, who has been voluble about the resignation of Grant Shapps – although somewhat less than candid about his role in the affair and the extent of his knowledge.

Tim Fenton in the blog Zelo Street, suggests that Cole, like the others, "has been advancing the pretence of faux horror at news of bullying which he almost certainly knew about all along". Harry Cole, says Fenton:
… is the modern face of Nixonland. He is congenitally dishonest, utterly without either principle or shame, and quite prepared to verbally and physically bully anyone and everyone who opposes him. He and Mark Clarke are honoured and, indeed, decorated alumni of the Young Britons' Foundation. He knows all about bullying in politics because he is one of its most able practitioners.
Not only is Cole an alumni of the Young Britons' Foundation, however, he was also celebrated by Conservative Home with evident approval as one of the "Westminster Brat Pack", a "London-based group of friends and professionals, who drink, blog, tweet, and network together". And, of Cole, CH writes: "His parties south of the river (hosted at the flat he shares with Christian May) are, apparently, the stuff of Brat Pack legend".

Another of the "Brat Pack" is Sam Coates, formerly deputy editor of Conservative Home and a close associate of Tim Montgomerie, who is now whinging in CapX that the Tory bullying scandal "reveals [a] shrunken, centralised, flawed party".

This is the man who complains that "people who crossed the party leadership a decade ago are never forgiven", yet forgets how quickly he banned from CH any commenters who spoke against David Cameron, when young Montgomerie was in his "hail the great leader" phase. This is also the man who ruthlessly blocks people from his Twitter account for daring to disagree with him.

Another close associate is Mark Wallace, now executive editor for Conservative Home, but formerly of the Taxpayers Alliance (TPA) where his boss was Matthew Elliott. Wallace, also a member of the "Brat Pack", uses his editorial position on CH to write puff pieces supporting his friend and former boss in his ambitions to become the lead campaigner for the "leave" side of the referendum.

Still another Bratt Packer is Matthew Sinclair, who took over the role of Director of the TPA when Matthew Elliott left to head the No2AV campaign (during which Paul Staines was paid handsomely as a media consultant). Now a consultant for the EU-funded Europe Economics, Sinclair maintains his links with Elliott and is a frequent contributor to Conservative Home.

There is nothing overtly sinister about these relationships, but they do go to show how introverted and closed the "SW1 crowd" has become, where you are either "one of us" or, in their eyes, you don't exist – you become a nonentity.

And within that "in crowd", we see that bullying, bitching, backstabbing, blackmail and betrayals are the common currency of these people, from amongst whom are those who consider themselves ideally fitted to run the "leave" campaign.

If it had not been for the intervention of Arron Banks, Mr Elliott's "Vote Leave Ltd" and his gang of Tory Boys would have been a slam dunk for lead designation. But, if nothing else, the Mark Clarke affair shows us that we should be even more reluctant about letting these people anywhere near the campaign.

The Tory "brand" is tarnished goods, and their supposed "brightest and best" are not to be trusted. If we are to win this referendum campaign, we must look elsewhere.

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