Grant Shapps, the former Chairman of the Conservative Party, resigned from his position as International Development Minister at the weekend after taking the blame for letting the Mark Clarke problem fester within the party too long. Shapps’ resignation came quickly because he believes he can regain his career inside the Conservatives at some point in the future.
It’s a spectacular fall for a man who many people thought would one day run for the party leadership.
Yet it potentially sets the stage for his resurrection. Such a return would not be without precedent. After all, former MP and deputy chairman Jeffrey Archer resurrected his career as a Tory candidate for mayor of London in 1999 after twice resigning, in 1974 and 1986, over scandals connected to him.
A scandal that touches the prime minister
Clarke was thrown out of the Conservative Party earlier this month following an investigation into allegations that he bullied and blackmailed members of the party, and kept records of their sexual liaisons, before and after the 2015 general election. The investigation into Clarke was triggered by the suicide of young Conservative activist Elliott Johnson who left a note accusing Clarke of bullying him.
Clarke has told Business Insider that he denies accusations of bullying and blackmail.
Shapps was co-chairman of the conservative party when RoadTrip 2015, Clarke’s organisation which sent busloads of young Tory activist around the country, was made an official part of the Conservative general election campaign.
The Mark Clarke story has progressed rapidly over the past few days. Before the weekend, the Conservative party claimed that they hadn’t received any complaints about Clarke until August of this year, but lots of stories have appeared in the press bringing that claim into question.
On Friday evening, the Guardian revealed that Shapps had received a letter complaining about Mark Clarke in January of this year. On the same day, The Times revealed that Shapps’ former chief of staff, Paul Abbott, wrote a memo to Shapps and Lord Feldman that detailed multiple complaints about Clarke from party activists. Feldman was co-chairman of the Conservative Party alongside Grant Shapps during the election campaign. According to the Times, the memo was sent just after Shapps and Feldman decided to make Clarke’s RoadTrip 2015 into an official part of the general election campaign in June 2014.
On Saturday, the Sun published extracts of letters from Prime Minister David Cameron to Clarke during 2014 and 2015 that lavished praise on him for his hard work. This was the first time that the scandal had really touched the Prime Minister and it soon became clear that the Conservative Party would need to come up with a response.
Journalist Harry Cole of The Sun, who uncovered the letters, said that Shapps was key in drafting the letters from the Prime Minister to Clarke and that Cameron was “apoplectic” at being drawn into the story. By Saturday afternoon, Shapps had resigned from his role as international development minister. Here is an extract from his resignation letter:
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. Given the very serious nature of what has subsequently occurred and my role in appointing Mr Clarke, I cannot help but conclude that the only right course of action is for me to step down as a Minister in your government.
“I know you have much more to give in the years ahead.”
Cameron responded to Shapps with a letter that showered him with praise. In the extract below, Cameron says “you have more to give in the years ahead.” This is likely political code which means there will be an opportunity for Clarke to be promoted again in the future (emphasis added):
Above all, you have been a loyal and trusted supporter of mine from the very beginning. I will always remember that. You have made a lasting contribution to the work of the Government, but you have also been a faithful servant of our party, and I know you have much more to give in the years ahead.
To understand how Shapps got drawn into the Clarke story and why he was the perfect candidate be the Conservative Party’s fall guy, you first need to know a little about his unusual background.
“My name is Grant, I’m from Pinner, and my ambition is to be a Conservative cabinet minister.”
Shapps is not your average Conservative politician. For a start, he didn’t go university. Instead, he went to Manchester Polytechnic (now Manchester Metropolitan University) where he completed a business and finance diploma.
While he didn’t go to Oxford or Cambridge university like many of his contemporaries within the Conservative Party, Shapps had political ambitions from an early age. He joined the Jewish youth organisation BBYO (formerly the B’nai B’rith Youth Organisation) and rose through its ranks to become its national president. At the age of 13, he is reputed to have introduced himself to a fellow BBYO member with “my name is Grant, I’m from Pinner, and my ambition is to be a Conservative cabinet minister.”
He first stood for election in 1997 and eventually won a seat in Welwyn Hatfield, Hertfordshire, in 2005. Along the way, he built up a reputation as a skillful campaigner who could connect with ordinary people. Welwyn Hatfield was a Labour seat in 2001, but by 2010 Shapps had taken the seat for the second time in a row with a majority of 17,423. That’s a very impressive majority for a swing seat.
Shapps became the party’s vice-chairman in the same year he became an MP, was appointed as shadow housing minister in 2007, became housing minister as part of the coalition government in 2010 and in 2012 he was made co-chairman of the Conservative Party alongside Lord Feldman. The speed and trajectory of his rise meant that he was on course to become a senior Cabinet Minister.
Clarke is publically denounced by an ex-girlfriend for his “appalling” behaviour
The aim of Shapps’ job as co-chairman was simple: to oversee the campaign to win the Conservatives the general election in 2015.
Alongside the election strategist Lynton Crosby, he was charged with delivering something called the 40-40 strategy. This was the plan to heavily target the voters in 40 constituencies where the Conservatives had a narrow majority, and 40 constituencies where other parties had a narrow majority. If they could win these 80 seats, the Conservatives would win the election.
This type of targeted ground campaign requires an army of organised volunteers. The problem for Shapps was that membership of the Conservative party has almost halved over the past decade. As the party has become more centralised and more professional, grassroots membership has slipped away.
This is where Mark Clarke and his RoadTrip 2015 organisation came in. Back in 2010, Clarke had stood as a Conservative candidate in Tooting, but lost out to Labour’s Sadiq Khan. His time as a parliamentary candidate wasn’t without controversy. He was publically denounced by an ex-girlfriend for his “appalling” behaviour and was heavily criticised by local Conservative party members in Tooting.
In 2008, one local councillor presciently told the Mail on Sunday “We have very grave concerns… There are people who are worried he [Clarke] could damage the party if he is elected. He would be a handful.”
Clarke was removed from the list of approved candidates for the 2015 election.
A simple plan …
Clarke, however, was determined to win his way back into favour and came up with a simple plan that drew on his connections as the former national chair of the Conservative Party’s youth wing, Conservative Future. A year before the general election he self-funded an organisation called RoadTrip 2015 which took coach loads of young Conservative party activists to campaign in target constituencies.
Clarke thought that by providing this mobile campaign service, the Conservative party would be obliged to approve him as a candidate for the 2020 election. After the 2015 campaign was finished, he told this reporter that he would be organising another RoadTrip campaign in 2020 in the hope that he would build up support from grateful MPs who could push for him to be given a place in Cabinet.
It was just what the Conservatives needed — a ready-made team of leaflet-delivers who could be deployed across the country. A decision was made by co-chairmen Shapps and Feldman, strategist Crosby and deputy chairman Stephen Gilbert to incorporate RoadTrip 2015 into the official Conservative party campaign.
No one knows for certain what exact input each of those four people had on the decision, but The Mail reported that Shapps was the real driving force behind signing up Clarke. Shapps’ political ambitions made it easy for others to pin the blame on him, because they could say he was blinkered by a thirst for power.
A get-rich quick scheme
Shapps was also particularly vulnerable to these sorts of allegations because of his own controversies during the election campaign.
In 2012, it emerged that when he was still an MP, Shapps had a second job running a get-rich-quick scheme that he operated, using the fictitious name “Michael Green.” Embarrassing screenshots were posted online of Shapps posing in his car and plane to promote his “How To Become Stinking Filthy Rich Online in 2004” guide. Despite costing $197, buyers of the guide were assured that the toolkit they would acquire should “rightfully sell for say $100,000.”
The Advertising Standards Authority started, then dropped an investigation into claims the testimonials on Shapps’ site were not real. This lead to an extremely embarrassing moment at Conservative Party Conference where Shapps was chased around by a journalist asking him questions about the testimonials. Senior Conservative officials would have been very angry that Shapps brought negative attention to their flagship event.
The worst thing for Shapps was that these revelations confirmed the prejudices of his fellow Conservative MPs. Many of them considered him to be good at the necessary evil of campaign work, but lacking in political substance. This attitude can best be summed up by a quote about Shapps given by a Conservative MP to Total Politics magazine back in 2013 — “He’s just a bloody salesman, isn’t he?”
Despite the Conservative’s unexpected majority at the general election, Shapps was quietly removed as co-chairman and appointed as international development minister: A junior position that was in effect a demotion.
“He’s not a popular character so they can get away with it.”
This is was why it made total sense that Shapps took the blame for Clarke. He had already been demoted and is currently lacking friends within the party. One MP told the BBC that Shapps was being used as a scapegoat: “He’s not a popular character so they can get away with it.”
We don’t know exactly what pressure was put on Shapps to resign, but it’s easy enough to take an educated guess as to what happened. The clues are in his resignation letter and the response he received from the Prime Minister. The fact that Shapps took responsibility without kicking up a fuss and Cameron appeared to leave the door open for him to be promoted again in the future suggests that Shapps was offered a some sort of deal. If he went quietly, he would once again be given the opportunity to advance within the party.
If this was the deal that was offered, both Shapps and leadership of the Conservative party would see it as a win.
A close personal friend of David Cameron
As things have turned out, Shapps’ resignation has not had the effect the Conservative party was hoping for. Clarke has simply been around the Conservative party for too long for people to think that only the over-ambitious Shapps failed to investigate him properly.
The most obvious inconsistency with Shapps’ resignation is that while he has accepted responsibility, Lord Feldman who also signed off Clarke’s RoadTrip 2015 has remained as chairman.
Unlike Shapps, Feldman is a close personal friend of David Cameron; they were tennis partners when they were at Oxford University. Feldman has been responsible for bringing in millions of pounds of funding into the Conservative party and is responsible for approving big financial decisions. He signed off on the £65,000 needed to hire the buses used by Clarke.
Until late last week Feldman was leading the internal investigation that kicked out Clarke and led to Shapps having to resign. Following a plea from Elliott Johnson’s father, the Conservative party has been forced instead to appoint a law firm to carry out an independent investigation.
Feldman’s fate, therefore, remains in the balance.
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