STEVEN DOWNES reports on how Gavin Barwell’s account of his election victory last year somehow managed to overlook the day when a Cabinet minister and more than 100 Tory activists visited the borough to help him
Is this a picture that Tory MP Gavin Barwell would prefer people did not see, or hope they might have forgotten?
While serious questions have been raised over the Conservative Party’s undeclared election spending in at least 29 key marginal seats at last year’s General Election, amounting to tens of thousands of pounds of unlawful over-spending – with more details expected to be reported on Channel 4 News tonight – Inside Croydon has discovered reports and images which show that Barwell’s campaign in marginal Croydon Central was helped by a Road Trip visit similar to those organised by the controversial “Tatler Tory”, Mark Clarke.
In the summer of 2014, Conservative activists were calling this “TubeTrip2015”, but it had all the hallmarks of the costly mass activitists’ trips which were authorised by Tory leadership figures Grant Shapps and Lord Feldman, and which have been at the centre of the recent Channel 4 News‘s investigations.
As one Conservative Future activist explained on his blog at the time, “Tube Trip is designed to get those London CFers who dare not leave Zone 1 out and about helping in marginal seats across the capital.”
The keen campaigner also wrote that “105 Tory activists went to help Gavin Barwell in Croydon Central with the promise of a free bar, free curry and a great party atmosphere. This time … for the new sister organisation of RoadTrip2015, Tube Trip.”
The Conservative activist who recorded his day’s campaigning for Barwell in Croydon Central on that hot summer’s day in 2014 was Elliott Johnson.
Johnson was 21 when, last September, he took his own life, the coroner’s court inquiry into his death hearing that he had suffered “degrading treatment” though bullying within the Conservative Party.
Tory Party officials had ignored warnings about Clarke, who some had described as “dangerous”, and of whom it was noted that his “bullying tactics are well-known”.
In a memo about Clarke sent to Conservative Campaign Headquarters, it said that Conservative Future activists had been “bullied, been lied to about his involvement with CCHQ or been hit on”, meaning that they had been subject to advances of a sexual nature.
That memo was sent to senior Tory figures before Johnson’s death.
Clarke has since been kicked out of the Tory Party, and he maintains he had no involvement in the death of Johnson. At the coroner’s inquest, no officials of the Tory Party were called to provide evidence.
There’s no suggestion here that the Tory Tube Trip to Croydon Central on July 19, 2014 was subject to unlawful behaviour.
But the timing of the mass visit appeared deliberately selected so that the cost of the day’s campaigning activities – and the free bar and curry for more than 100 hungry and thirsty young Tories – was outside the period in which Barwell would need to declare it in his strictly limited election spending.
Barwell, of course, eventually managed to hang on to the Croydon Central seat last May, but with a much reduced majority of just 165 votes.
Barwell recently had his memoir published of his 12-month election campaign to the 2015 General Election. Barwell’s book runs to 270 pages, but contains not a single word about the help he received from Elliott Johnson or this Tube Trip visit.
It’s as if it is an inconvenient piece of history that Barwell would rather no one remembered. But it seems certain that the Tube Trip visit was part of the carefully planned election strategy which Barwell says was agreed at a Croydon Conservatives meeting held on June 7, 2014.
This meeting was shortly after the Conservatives had lost the local elections in Croydon. Barwell writes in his book, “The council election campaign had shown that we needed more activists… It was that simple: a lack of boots on the ground cost us a seat.”
The Tube Trip to Croydon was attended by Tory cabinet minister Chris Grayling. So it was hardly something that Conservative Party hack Barwell would normally be coy about.
Indeed, several of Croydon Tories’ most loyal activitists, and a former Monster Raving Loony, at the time posed for the seemingly obligatory and awkward selfies (“This is how we’ve been told to hold a canvassing leaflet”), as shown in the photograph to the right.
Even members of Barwell’s state-funded Parliamentary staff made sure that they marked the occasion by posting a message on their Twitter account on the day.
Might Barwell’s apparent amnesia over the Road Trip visit of Johnson and a hundred other young activists have something to do with his sensitivity over previous election expenses?
Five years ago, Barwell’s campaign agent took the rap from a court judge when the then Westminster new boy was caught out after being elected to Parliament for failing to declare properly all his election expenses.
The unaccounted election costs in 2010, which were also unearthed by Channel 4, was all put down to an “administrative error”. Sound familiar?
The principle difference between the mass activism for Barwell in Croydon and those under investigation by Channel 4 News‘s Michael Crick is really geography: targeted seats in London generally did not have to meet the expense of an overnight stay for activists visiting far-flung target seats in Cornwall or Thanet – although Tory target seats in nearby Kingston and Sutton and Cheam, where Croydon-based businessman Paul Scully overcame the LibDem incumbent, have both been caught out for undeclared election expenses.
Elliott Johnson’s own account of his visit to Croydon Central on behalf of Gavin Barwell reads quite poignantly now. Given that, at the time, it was hailed as such a campaign success, it makes it seem all the more odd that it doesn’t rate even a single line in Barwell’s book. Maybe he is just forgetful. Or ungrateful.
“And so to the free bar, free curry and partying afterwards,” Johnson wrote.
The Tory Party’s party was held in Tiger Tiger, now closed.
“I really enjoy RoadTrips,” Johnson wrote on his blog. “I very much look forward to them every time. I must thank the Tube Trip team a lot, especially Luke Springthorpe who was the head honcho of the night. I hope you come join us next time wherever we go.”
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