Mark Clarke, Harry Cole and a “Social Media Campaign” Against Ben Howlett MP

A detail from Simon Walters at the Mail on Sunday:

Tory MP Ben Howlett has spoken of his ‘mental health issues’ after a vicious feud with Mark Clarke.

Traumatised Mr Howlett was referred to a psychotherapist by his GP when Clarke’s gang falsely branded him a ‘terrorist sympathiser’ in a four-year social media war against him.

An inexperienced Howlett, then 23, made a half-hearted defence of Northern Ireland politician Gerry Adams at a rowdy pub hustings chaired by Clarke, and was branded a ‘terrorist sympathiser’ and ‘IRA apologist’ in an internet smear campaign against him.

He is convinced it was a trap laid by Clarke. After he applied to become a Parliamentary candidate in 2013, local activists were targeted with the same bogus claims. 

I previously wrote about the Mark Clarke scandal here; Zelo Street has extensive commentary and background on the media coverage. The hustings were for a forthcoming election for chair of Conservative Future.

The history of this particular claim about Howlett is of some interest. Its first appearance was on the website of Harry Cole, who in 2010 was blogging as “Tory Bear” while also working for Paul Staines. Cole, who is today the Sun‘s Westminster Correspondent, has long-standing links with Clarke, although Cole now says they fell out last year. Cole has filed a number of reports on the Clarke story for the Sun, including one exclusive that featured images of notes from David Cameron that must be Clarke’s own personal possessions.

Here’s Cole on Howlett in 2010:

And so to Mahiki last night for the first of the Conservative Future chairman hustings that was piggy-backing on the Young Britons’ Foundation Summer Party…

It wasn’t until a cheeky grenade was lobbed in that there was the night’s only shocking incident. Candidates were asked “Which politician do you most relate to and respect… in Northern Ireland?”

Given that he was speaking in a room of Thatcherite right-wingers, Ben Howlett’s attempt at getting the Fenian vote look spectacularly inappropriate. He cited Gerry Adams as “a conviction politician”.

What exactly did Howlett mean by this? Cole doesn’t feel the need to give any kind of context, but we do know that Cole is deeply dishonest, and it is highly implausible that Howlett would have offered up an endorsement IRA terrorism.

Cole’s post was promoted the same day by Iain Dale, who observed that “One suspects [Howlett’s] chances of winning the chairmanship of CF have not improved”.

The matter was raised again in 2012 by Christian May on Dale’s Total Politics website; it is perhaps worth noting that Christian May is apparently Cole’s flatmate (H/T Zelo Street), and that last year May, Cole and Clarke were part of the same cricket team. Here’s May’s version:

Speaking of being embarrassingly off message, rightly or wrongly most Tories in Westminster now associate the current Conservative Future chairman, Ben Howlett, with his infamous gaffe during a hustings. When asked which politician from Northern Ireland he most admired, he responded “Gerry Adams.” Even more bafflingly, he stuck to his position and described him as “a conviction politician.” He may have misspoke. He may have said something stupid under pressure but unfortunately for him he did say it and today “and Gerry Adams” is a suggested result when Ben Howlett is typed into Google.

One senior figure from the height of young Conservative notoriety tells me that when Norman Tebbit learned that Howlett revealed Gerry Adams to be a man he admired, the former Party Chairman “shook his head in disgust and said that nothing surprised him anymore about the state of the Conservative Party”.

There’s a subtle change of emphasis here: the word “admire” has been introduced, and the “conviction politician” comment is evidence of doubling-down rather than being the main offence itself (Incidentally, one wonders who the “senior figure” was who made sure that the story reached the ears of Norman Tebbit, and who then reported back with his reaction).

The matter was raised yet again in 2014 by Breitbart London:

Would-be Conservative MP for Bath Ben Howlett is facing pressure to stand down after it emerged that one of his admired politicians Gerry Adams was taken into questioning over murder.

At a private meeting in 2010 Mr Howlett was asked which Northern Irish politician he most admired, confirming it was Mr Adams, who leads the political arm of the terrorist Irish Republican Army: Sinn Fein.

Despite regular requests to take back the comments, Mr Howlett has always stood by them. He was recently selected to fight the marginal seat of Bath in the 2015 UK general electiion… His chances are now likely to have been significantly damaged.

…The full story on Adams is available here.

One suspects that by reporting that Howlett is “facing pressure”, Breitbart is being self-referential. “Admired” is now firmly embedded into the heart of the story; and the impression is given that Howlett regularly enthuses over Adams. The Breitbart article is anonymous, although the link to the article on Adams clicks through to a (now blank) piece by Andre Walker, who is frequently described as a “henchman” of Mark Clarke.

The story most recently reappeared in a piece about the Mark Clarke scandal by Iain Dale:

Howlett fingered Sayeeda Warsi, Grant Shapps and Andrew Feldman on Newsnight last week, saying that he had reported instances of bullying to them which they had failed to investigate…

My only previous knowledge of Howlett was when he was seeking adoption in a number of seats prior to the last election. He was sifted for interview in Eastbourne, once represented by Margaret Thatcher’s close friend, Ian Gow. Gow was killed by an IRA car bomb in 1990. Eastbourne Conservatives decided not to select Howlett as their candidate. One reason was that he had publicly announced that the politician he most admired in Northern Ireland was Gerry Adams.

But as shown above, Dale’s “previous knowledge of Howlett” in fact came from Harry Cole in 2010. Further, Dale’s information about Howlett’s failure in Eastbourne appears to be a new detail that he is here introducing into the public domain. Dale obviously wants us to regard Howlett with scepticism and distaste (the wider implication of his article is that Howlett’s complaints are opportunistic) – but he is keen for us to believe that he is merely relaying the considered opinion of mainstream Conservatives in Eastbourne, rather than once again promoting Harry Cole’s 2010 blogpost.

The same Mail on Sunday article that I began this post with also includes a detail about Paul Abbott, until recently the chief executive of Conservative Way Forward. According to the report, he has been a

…victim of a crude smear campaign inspired by Clarke’s camp in recent weeks.

This is somewhat opaque, but it presumably refers to a claim that appeared (with evidence) in the Sun last week:

A CONSERVATIVE Party chief warned Tatler Tory Mark Clarke he should smile at people and get “someone else to shoot them” after he was accused of bullying.

Activist Josh Hitchens complained about Clarke to party bosses just two months before he was made boss of RoadTrip.

But his email was immediately forwarded to then-Chief of Staff Paul Abbott, who leaked the complaint to Clarke, warning: “FYI. Maybe do this on the phone in future?”

And the co-author of this particular article? Once again: Harry Cole. Is the Mail on Sunday‘s Simon Walters trying to tell us something?