What is the Young Britons' Foundation?

By Hannah Barnes
BBC News

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

The Young Britons' Foundation has been portrayed as a "Tory madrasa" used to teach young Conservatives the "dark arts" of politics.

Its image hasn't been helped by the fact that one of its alumni is Mark Clarke. He stands accused of bullying a young activist, Elliott Johnson, who took his life in September.

More recently the YBF was described as a "cult" by Elliott Johnson's father Ray, who said it was "indoctrinating" those who attended.

Mr Clarke denies the allegations made against him, but what do we know about the YBF and how it operates?

What is the Young Britons' Foundation?

Founded in 2003, YBF organises events for young people with conservative views to meet up and discuss politics.

About 100 people attend its annual conference. Over the course of a weekend, young delegates will meet and hear talks from some of the most influential figures in the Conservative movement.

Past speakers have included current and former cabinet ministers including Robert Halfon, Michael Gove, Eric Pickles and Grant Shapps.

Image source, Other
Image caption,
Grant Shapps resigned as Conservative Party Chairman over the Mark Clarke bullying allegations

Members from UKIP, Young America's Foundation and libertarian pressure group The Freedom Association have also made appearances.

However, terms and conditions apply.

Firstly, attendance at all of the talks is compulsory. Secondly, everything said falls under the Chatham House Rule.

This allows people to use the information they hear but not to reveal who said it. Tickets to the event, which include accommodation, drinks receptions and banquet dinners, are heavily subsidised and cost £45 for students.

However, point three of the terms and conditions states that anyone in breach of rules one or two is liable to pay the full conference price of £500.

I've been told the rule has never been enforced but it's there to stop people taking advantage of the generosity of those footing the lion's share of the bill.

Who's in charge of the YBF?

Image source, Other
Image caption,
Donal Blaney founded the Young Britons' Foundation in 2003

A solicitor called Donal Blaney. Although he's listed as one of Britain's most influential right-wingers, most people have probably never heard of him.

The 41-year-old rarely gives interviews to the media. "I think people think that I am sat on a desert island stroking a white cat and plotting the revolution," he says when we eventually meet up in London.

He's quick to add that the Bond villain image couldn't be further from the truth.

He is, he says, a very private person. For that reason he has done very little to correct the myths about him and his organisation.

For example, he's often credited with coining the phrase "conservative madrasa" to describe the YBF. In fact, he says he never said it - it was a political ally who used it once in a conversation years ago.

Outside of the YBF he is the chairman of Conservative Way Forward, set up by Margaret Thatcher in 1991. David Cameron has described it as "the largest and most effective pressure group within the Conservative movement today".

YBF is very much Donal Blaney's personal project. He says it's funded almost entirely from his own pocket to the tune of about £50,000 per year. It has been rumoured that the organisation was funded by the CIA, something Mr Blaney laughs at.

"That was a joke I played on the Guardian in 2003. They asked whether we were funded from abroad and I thought I'd have some fun with them by saying, 'Yes, we've had some funding from Northern Virginia.' They said, 'Do you mean the CIA?' And I said 'I'm not answering that question,' and put the phone down. I had received $100 from a friend of mine who lived and worked in Northern Virginia."

What are the YBF's politics?

Donal Blaney makes a point of distinguishing his own political views from those of the YBF, which he says is a broad-church for anyone from "Heathites" to "Thatcherites".

However, Euroscepticism, free market libertarianism, and reverence for the record of Margaret Thatcher are the sort of political attitudes regarded as "sound" in YBF.

What's its purpose?

"The Young Britons' Foundation identifies, trains, mentors and helps to place young conservatives in public life," says Mr Blaney.

"Some might become members of Parliament, some might become councillors, some might become journalists and some might go and earn a packet of money in the City."

The way it tries to train or mentor them is through a series of workshops held at their conferences. The topics include public speaking, debating, appearing in the media, door-to-door campaigning and how to raise funds.

Mr Blaney says YBF events are meant to be "fun, lively and irreverent gatherings of like-minded people".

However, there are those who believe it's not all as innocent as it sounds.

Why are people talking about YBF now?

Image source, PA
Image caption,
Elliott Johnson took his own life in September after complaining of bullying

It's because of the death of Elliott Johnson, a 21-year-old member of the youth wing of the Conservative Party.

He took his life in September and left a note saying he had been bullied by older Tory activists including Mark Clarke, a former director of outreach of YBF.

After failing to win a seat when he stood as the Conservative candidate at the 2010 general election, Mr Clarke was the subject of a number of complaints from his local party. As a result he was thrown off the Conservative Party's candidates' list for future elections. He then became more involved with the YBF.

Elliott Johnson also attended YBF events. It was at the group's annual conference last year that Mark Clarke used his speech to criticise and humiliate a young, female Conservative activist.

We were told that Mr Clarke then persuaded Elliott Johnson to continue the personal attack on his blog.

Since Elliott's death many others have come forward to say that they too have been bullied or harassed by Mark Clarke and others involved in the Conservative Party's youth wing. Many of those alleged aggressors are also seen as "graduates" of YBF training, as are many of the alleged victims.

"I can't say for sure but the one thing that links all these people is the Young Britons' Foundation," says Aaron Ellis, a young Tory activist - who concedes he has never attended a YBF event himself.

"Their definition of conservatism was very restrictive and tied up with that was an obsession with the political dark arts."

He explained that he believed that some people who had attended YBF training sessions had been taught how to manipulate the media and brief against their opponents without being found out.

Donal Blaney completely rejects the notion that his organisation has encouraged anyone to bully or intimidate others and told me that the suggestion YBF has done so is "grossly offensive". He stresses that young people attending YBF are explicitly told that personal attacks on opponents are "off limits".

What's happened since these bullying allegations surfaced?

Image source, Getty Images

The Conservative Party has launched an investigation into numerous bullying allegations and the death of Elliott Johnson.

It's being carried out by the law firm Clifford Chance. Meanwhile YBF has distanced itself from Mark Clarke.

All references to him, including details of an award he was given in December 2014, were deleted from the organisation's website.

Donal Blaney insists this is not an attempt to erase the past or pretend he was never friends with Mark Clarke.

"I take the view that Mark Clarke's behaviour speaks for itself. I wish I had had nothing to do with him," he said.

In recent days YBF has gone even further and the only thing you can now find on its website is a statement explaining why it has postponed this year's annual conference that was due to take place this weekend.