UK Politics

Ministers pull out of conference amid bullying scandal

Mark Clarke Image copyright RoadTrip
Image caption Tory activist Mark Clarke is at the centre of a bullying scandal - he denies all the allegations

Five senior Conservative ministers have pulled out of speaker engagements at the annual conference of the Young Britons Foundation - an organisation with close links to disgraced activist Mark Clarke, BBC Newsnight has learned.

Mr Clarke, who has been banned for life from the Conservative Party after a string of bullying allegations, was a former director of outreach at the group.

The same 2014 event saw Conservative Party chairman Grant Shapps and the then Secretary of State for Local Government Eric Pickles speak.

Until Tuesday, the Conservative ministers - all of whom attend cabinet - had been on a list of speakers for the conference on the foundation's website. They have now been removed.

All those contacted by Newsnight cited diary clashes as the reason.

The move comes after a request from Ray Johnson - the father of Elliott Johnson who took his own life in September after complaining of bullying - to the prime minister to stop government ministers speaking at the event. Last month David Cameron rejected the request, saying the decision was up to MPs.

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Media captionElliott Johnson's father, Ray, told Newsnight he wants an external investigation into the bullying allegations

The Young Britons Foundation has been labelled as a Tory "madrassa" and describes itself as a "research and training organisation that promotes conservatism in schools, colleges and universities".

It is chaired by leading Tory Euro-sceptic MEP Daniel Hannan.

Newsnight is aware of at least one bullying complaint that refers to the foundation.

The business secretary Sajid Javid, defence secretary Michael Fallon, justice secretary Michael Gove, deputy Conservative Party chairman Robert Halfon, and the first secretary to the treasury Greg Hands have all pulled out of the conference. The former secretary of state for local government Eric Pickles has also told the group he will not be attending.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Sajid Javid is among those who have pulled out of a Young Britons Foundation event

No cabinet ministers will now be speaking at the event.

After sending the prime minister an email on 8 November requesting him to ban Conservative MPs from the conference Ray Johnson received a response on 12 November - revealed by Newsnight on Monday.

It read: "I know that you are concerned by The Young Britons Foundation. I am afraid that the Party has no control over who they invite to speak at their events and it is, of course, a matter for individual Members of Parliament to decide which organisations they meet and which events they address."

The speaker withdrawals come after a Conservative statement published earlier this week announced the party would review its "relationship with all groups linked to, and campaigning on behalf of, the Party".

Image caption An extract from the letter from Mr Cameron to Ray Johnson

Read the full letter here

Several other MPs are still billed as confirmed speakers at the conference, including Graham Brady, chair of the influential 1922 Committee.

A spokesman for Sajid Javid said he withdrew last week because it clashed with a ministerial visit abroad.

Mr Hands and Mr Gove said they also pulled out last week due to diary clashes. An advisor to Mr Fallon said he had pulled out two months ago. Newsnight has been unable to get in touch with Mr Halfon.

The chief executive of the Young Britons Foundation Donal Blaney said: "It has been our experience over the more than 10 years of organising YBF conferences that some speakers have to withdraw late on and others confirm late. This year, due to overseas travel, personal commitments and ministerial duties is no different to past years."

He denied any knowledge of any complaint ever being put to either him or the Conservative Party.

Mr Clarke denies all allegations of bullying.

More on this story:

Grant Shapps quits amid Tory bullying claims

Lord Feldman: The key questions

Listen: Mark Clarke profile for Radio 4

Tory 'bully' was backed by party bosses

Tories 'failed to act' on 'institutionalised bullying'

Watch: Newsnight investigation into Tory bullying allegations

James Clayton is politics producer for BBC Newsnight. Watch his report into Tory bullying allegations here

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