‘A young man of promise’ at heart of Tory storm

Crossbench Peer and leading barrister Lord David Pannick QC.  Photo by Edward Wong.
Crossbench Peer and leading barrister Lord David Pannick QC. Photo by Edward Wong.
  • Top barrister is to review Tory youth wing bullying enquiry ‘process’

An ex-Spalding Grammar School student whose death has sparked bullying claims from young Tory activists has been described as a “young man of promise”, by John Hayes MP.

Elliott Johnson (21), who campaigned in Long Sutton for the Conservatives ahead of a South Holland District Council by-election in 2012, died on September 15 amid claims that he was the victim of bullying and intimidation within the party’s youth wing, Conservative Future.

Sarah-Jane Sewell outside 10 Downing Street.

Sarah-Jane Sewell outside 10 Downing Street.

An independent investigation into “events surrounding Elliott’s death” and conducted by global law firm Clifford Chance started last Tuesday and written statements from more than 40 witnesses, previously given to Conservative Party officials, are being reviewed.

One of the statements is reported to be from ex-Spalding High School student Sarah-Jane Sewell (22) who resigned as national deputy chairman of Conservative Future last July, claming to “have been besmirched in the most abhorrent fashion”.

In her resignation letter of July 2014, Sarah-Jane said: “I have always tried to behave with the utmost integrity and honesty, as well as being there to listen to those in need of help and guidance.

“To this day, I have not conducted a single negative attack on an opponent and of this record I am very proud.

At the heart of the business with Elliott Johnson is the loss of a young man with promise who was also a much-loved son.

John Hayes MP for South Holland and the Deepings

“I worry for anyone else who wishes to run in what should be a fair democratic process (as) I myself have been besmirched in the most abhorrent fashion and I have little doubt that other opponents would be subject to similar treatment from those who seemingly act with impunity.

“I can only hold my head high knowing that they are untrue...as well as the fact (that) I have never stooped to such depths myself.

“I do not leave a bitter person, although it does sadden me that such conduct is seemingly embraced by others.”

Meanwhile, British Transport Police (BTP) is continuing its enquiries into Elliott’s death and a report is to be presented to Bedfordshire senior coroner Tom Osborne in time for an inquest in March.

Former student 'Elliott Johnson outside Spalding Grammar School.

Former student 'Elliott Johnson outside Spalding Grammar School.

A BTP spokesman said: “Our officers continue to investigate the circumstances leading to the death of Elliott Johnson (and a report) will be passed to the coroner in due course.

“As with all cases, once we have completed our investigation a decision will be made as to whether any further action is needed.”

Mr Hayes, MP for South Holland and the Deepings, said: “At the heart of the business with Elliott Johnson is the loss of a young man with promise who was also a much-loved son.

“My feelings are for his mum and dad and their grief which I understand fully and I have to ask myself ‘how would I feel if it was my son?’”

The independent probe by law firm Clifford Chance into bullying claims within Conservative Future is to be reviewed by top lawyer and independent Peer Lord David Pannick QC (Queen’s Counsel).

A revised statement from the Board of the Conservative Party, published in full here after an incorrect version was sent to the Spalding Guardian last week, said: “The Board would like to express its profound regret at the tragic death of Elliott Johnson and sends its deepest condolences to his family and friends.

“The Board wishes to ensure its investigation into events surrounding Elliott’s death and the alleged activities of (Tory activists) is, and is seen to be, timely, objective, comprehensive and independent from the chairman, staff and party volunteers.

“From December 1, the investigation will be conducted in its entirety by the law firm Clifford Chance LLP and this will include taking witness statements, the collation and review of all written evidence.

“Clifford Chance LLP will review all interviews already conducted and give those already interviewed the option to be reinterviewed.

“No (Conservative) Party officials will be involved in this process, other than as witnesses.

“The Crossbench Peer Lord Pannick QC has agreed to review the investigative process and to certify that it is objective, appropriate and comprehensive.

“Lord Feldman and Rob Halfon MP will recuse themselves from the Board meeting which considers the Clifford Chance report.

“The Board will publish the findings of the Clifford Chance report, mindful of the need to protect vulnerable witnesses - especially those who have asked for their identity not to be disclosed - and not to do anything to prejudice the ongoing Coroner’s inquiry and police investigations.

“The Board will continue to fully co-operate with the ongoing inquiries being undertaken by the Coroner (for Bedfordshire and Luton) and British Transport Police.

“Furthermore, the Board will ask an independent third party specialist to undertake a separate review of our governance processes as a party and, in particular, with regard to our relationship with all groups linked to, and campaigning on behalf of, the party.

“We want to ensure that they are robust and in keeping with the best practice in the private and public sectors.”

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