The inquest into the death of a young Tory activist has heard he was intimidated in a “sinister” altercation at a London pub a month before his death by a party official who threatened to “destroy his career”.
Elliott Johnson, 21, was found dead on railway tracks in Bedfordshire in September 15, just weeks after making allegations about his treatment within the Conservative Party.
The inquest in Bedfordshire heard Elliott believed he was being bullied by figures within the party before being made redundant by Conservative Way Forward after making a complaint.
The court heard that Johnson wrote to his then employers, Conservative Way Forward, in August last year to explain about an altercation between him and “Tatler Tory” Mark Clarke at a London pub.
In the complaint, Johnson said the incident begun at around 10.50pm when Clarke approached him in the pub, intimidating him and saying that he would “destroy my career in the Conservative party and journalism.”
Johnson also described how Clarke had threatened to sue him over the use of a photo in an online blog that Johnson had published, the court heard.
“People began to notice Mark shouting at me,” Johnson wrote to CWF. “I was genuinely fearful that he would start to attack me.”
Johnson explained to CWF that Clarke had threatened to sue him for breach of copyright for stealing his photo and using it in his blog.
Clarke also told Johnson that he knew he had received a police caution for tweeting about election results while he was at university, the court heard.
Clarke told Johnson that he would “use this information to destroy my career in politics and journalism”, the letter said.
Clarke told Johnson that in the next few weeks this would be splashed across the front pages of all the national newspapers.
Johnson described how Clarke was by this stage “ballistic” and that he “turned sinister”. He said that he “sued hundreds of people and always won” adding that he “swotted ants when they were young”.
Johnson was “deeply upset” by the incident, the court heard.
Johnson secretly filmed a further altercation in a pub with Clarke and political journalist Andre Walker and sent it on a memory stick to the chief executive of CWF, with a note saying “Make sure you listen. Apologies, Elliott.”
A transcript of the film was read out to the court. Referring to the earlier confrontation in a pub over the photo, Johnson told Clarke: “I’ve come here for an apology.”
Clarke told him: “Well that’s not going to happen is it.”
Later in the conversation, Walker compared Johnson’s job at CWF to the pro-Nazi Second World War Vichy regime in France, suggesting that he would come to an “unpleasant end”.
Walker has previously claimed to have been in a relationship with Johnson until he died.
Johnson told Clarke that he “deserves a kick up the a***” for his “blatant” confrontation with him in the pub.
Johnson said: “It’s not right to bully people in pubs.”
Giving evidence at the inquest, Paul Abbott, a former chief executive at CWF, explained that Johnson was hired as a political editor at the think tank in summer 2015.
He told how Chrissie Boyle, who is currently executive director at CWF and was Johnson’s line manager at the organisation last summer, had contacted him about Johnson’s complaint against Clarke.
Boyle told Mr Abbott that incident Johnson described was “nasty” and she thought Clarke should be reported to the Conservative Party headquarters with the full backing of CWF.
They discussed the similarity between Johnson’s description of events and previous complaint made by a CWF female volunteer against Clarke, the court heard. The female volunteer later “effectively had a nervous breakdown”.
A note to his parents, Ray and Alison, of Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, found after his death was also read out at the hearing.
In it Johnson wrote: “I’ve been bullied by Mark Clarke and betrayed by Andre Walker… Now all my political bridges are burnt.”
He apologised to his family and told them that he loved them.
“I’m sorry it has come to this,” he said. “I love you so much, never forget this.”
Reflecting on his involvement with Conservative politics, he said: “I’m sure in hindsight I could have made better decisions…. I regret all of this but can’t change it now.”
He told his family: “I’ll see you on the other side.”
He went on: “The rest of my life would be a never ending torture, that’s how I see it.”
In a separate note to “bullies and betrayers” he said “I could write a hate message but actions speak louder than words”.
An examination of Mr Johnson’s computer found that before his death, he had searched for “redundancy suicide”, “disinfectant suicide” and “cheap suicide”.
He had also carried out internet searches about household product poisons, overdose by insulin, and “train stations north London”.
Giving evidence at the inquest, British Transport Police officer DCI Sam Blackburn said that Johnson was “very active” in politics while he was an undergraduate student at Nottingham University, adding that he was “certainly” ambitious to succeed as a political journalist.
The court heard how Johnson was “heartbroken” at the termination of his employment at right wing think-tank Conservative Way Forward (CWF) in August 2015.
In a phone conversation with his line manager at CWF about it, he was “half crying” down the telephone.
The hearing comes after senior Bedfordshire and Luton coroner Tom Osborne refused a call by the Johnson family in March for a full inquest to hear more detailed evidence about events in the months leading up to his death.
It was argued this should include the culture within the Conservative Party at the time. In his ruling, the coroner said the original scope of the inquest was appropriate and he would not call members of the Conservative Party as witnesses.
He said it would not be appropriate to call members of the Conservative Party to give evidence about what steps or measures they are taking to investigate the bullying allegations by one party member towards another.
Both Mr Clarke and Mr Walker deny the allegations. Mr Walker, a lobby journalist and former political adviser who claims he was in a relationship with Elliott, says he intends to go to this week’s inquest.
In a statement ahead of the hearing, he said: “The loss of Elliott has left a hole in everyone’s lives. I’m just looking forward to getting some clarity on all the circumstances surrounding his death not just the ones that have been focused on heavily so far.”
The coroner had stated in his ruling in March: “The inquest is limited to answering the question as to how the deceased came by his death, will look at the circumstances of his employment and consider in detail the content of the notes left by the deceased to determine whether the correct conclusion should be that he died as a result of suicide.
“I emphasise again that an inquest is not a trial. The purpose is not to determine whether the allegations of bullying set out in the letters left by Mr Johnson were true and I will not allow the inquest to be used as a tool for putting anyone on trial.”
Elliott’s parents want to know if the death is linked to a series of events that occurred in the last few weeks of his life.
The family stated that at the time of his death, Elliott believed his career was over after his full-time position with Conservative Way Forward was made redundant. Elliott had alleged bullying a month before his death.
His allegations eventually sparked an investigation and the resignation of former party chairman Grant Shapps. The allegations centre on the activities of Mr Clarke who has since been expelled from the party.
Mr Clarke has strongly denied the allegations against him. Elliott had made a formal complaint about Mr Clarke to Conservative HQ.