Tory bullying victim's mother: 'We won't go quietly'
The mother of a Tory activist whose death sparked the Tory bullying scandal has told the BBC she feels as if the family has been treated as suspects to be caught out rather than grieving parents.
In her first broadcast interview, Alison Johnson told BBC Newsnight that the party had acted insensitively and offered no support to them since the death of their son, Elliott, in September last year.
"They are probably thinking that... we will go away quietly. But we won't. I want justice for my son," she said.
The Conservative Party said: "We would like to again express our very deepest sympathies to Elliott's family and friends."
BBC Newsnight has also learned that 15 key witnesses have called for the removal of a senior Conservative official from any involvement with the party's inquiry into the scandal.
A number of them told Newsnight they would be reluctant to talk to the investigation while the official, who has previously been associated with the former activist at the heart of the scandal, is involved in the handling of the inquiry in any way.
Mrs Johnson's son took his own life last year after allegedly being bullied by Mark Clarke - the man who ran a road-trip campaign bussing Conservative supporters to marginal constituencies before last year's General Election.
The death of the 21-year-old led to claims the Conservative Party Headquarters (CCHQ) had ignored complaints and warnings about the conduct of Clarke and others.
This prompted the resignation from the government of Grant Shapps, who had been co-chair of the party, and the launch of an inquiry by the London law firm, Clifford Chance.
Mrs Johnson told the BBC she and her husband Ray had been frozen out by the Conservative Party.
"The Conservative Party have not been forthright in coming to speak to us in any way. Anything we've heard we've had to hear through the press. When they engaged Clifford Chance to do the investigation we heard through the press."
She said that they had been particularly offended when it appeared the inquiry wanted to speak to her and her husband separately. She said it left them feeling like suspects whose accounts were being tested.
"We also heard that they wanted to interview me and my husband individually, to find out what our stories are... But it is not a story. It is the facts. We can only deal with the facts. Elliott has now gone, we can only deal with the facts."
A spokesman for Clifford Chance said: "We are sorry to learn of the Johnsons' concerns about the proposed interview format and would welcome the opportunity to discuss alternative arrangements for them to be interviewed."
Mrs Johnson also said it felt like the Conservative Party was keeping them in the dark.
"We live in a backwater so they are probably thinking that if we silence them we will go away quietly, but we won't. We definitely won't. I want justice for my son... no matter how it comes out, I want justice."
Mrs Johnson said Christmas had been awful without her son. An empty chair had been left at the table, she said.
"Every day just drifts into another and you just don't know anything."
Mrs Johnson spoke as a BBC Newsnight investigation revealed that 15 key witnesses who have potentially valuable testimony about bullying have called for a senior Tory official to step down from the inquiry process.
Though Clifford Chance has been commissioned to conduct the investigation, the firm's final report will be reviewed by group of senior Tories who will decide how the findings are presented.
One of those assessing the conclusions is Rob Semple, chair of the Tory volunteers' organisation, the National Convention. Mr Semple's candidacy for this post was supported by Mark Clarke.
Last year's election was marred by smearing of Mr Semple's rival for the post, Charles Heslop.
Mr Semple told Newsnight he condemned "any alleged negative remarks about another member of the Party that might have been made, without my knowledge, during the National Convention campaign".
However, many potential witnesses to the bullying inquiry believe Mr Semple's presence on the board in untenable - and believe he should step aside from any role in the inquiry.
Ten of the 15 key witnesses told Newsnight that Rob Semple's continued presence on the Board would deter them from giving evidence.
Ben Harris-Quinney, chair of the Bow Group, has been invited to give evidence. He has yet to decide whether he will.
"If Rob Semple doesn't stand down it says that the Conservative Party is not interested in doing the right thing and ensuring this doesn't happen again. They are merely interested in trying to cling on and get away with it and hope that the story goes away as quickly as possible," he said.
John Strafford, chairman of the Campaign for Conservative Democracy, told Newsnight that if Mr Semple refuses to recuse himself, CCHQ should order him to do stand down.
"There is no reason whatsoever in my view why anybody who was involved with Mark Clarke should be participating and it would be a bad thing for justice if that happened."
Mr Stafford said the bullying crisis currently engulfing CCHQ was the worst he had experienced in his 40 years as a member the party.
"This is the biggest of all. This is the absolute biggest of all. The party can no longer treat its members with contempt as it has in the past and which it is still doing."
In a statement to Newsnight, Mr Semple said he would not stand down - and denied he was still in touch with Mark Clarke.
"I am committed to ensuring that the highest possible standards of behaviour are upheld. I will ensure… Clifford Chance's findings will be honoured in full. I urge witnesses to come forward so that the full facts are known."
A Conservative Party spokesman said: "Rob Semple is not being asked to step down from the Board when the report is delivered."
Mark Clarke has consistently denied any wrongdoing.