South Thanet MP Craig Mackinlay and his aide Sam Armstrong
ON THE STUMP: Armstrong (left) campaigning for Mackinlay
The arrest of his aide on suspicion of raping a woman in his Westminster office is only the latest development in the eventful career of South Thanet’s Tory MP, Craig “Macca” Mackinlay.
The aide, Sam Armstrong, is Mackinlay’s chief of staff and he’s now on bail until January pending police inquiries, so no more can be said about that.
But WHY Macca took Armstrong on in the first place is an important question in its own right which we can examine, and it may just provide us with a revealing insight into the mentality of our ambitious, tough-talking Member of Parliament.
Craig Mackinlay became MP for South Thanet in the general election in 2015.
He was brought in by the Tories to beat off a challenge from Nigel Farage, the odds on favourite.
It was a simple calculation – an attempt to out-UKIP UKIP by running right-wing Mackinlay who had himself been one of the founders of UKIP in 1997.
And it worked – though only, most believe, with the help of mass tactical voting by people who wanted anyone but Farage.
Whether it was also with the help of overspending on election expenses, as Channel 4 has alleged, is still being investigated by Kent Police.
VICTORIOUS: Mackinlay on election night with Al Murray and Nigel Farage
Macca has some form in swimming in electoral hot water.
Back in 2012 when he was battling to become Kent’s first elected police commissioner, around 50 people got mail-shots from him who hadn’t signed up to get them – a clear breach of data protection legislation.
There were complaints and Macca had to apologise. He said it was “an honest mistake” – but it’s still unclear how these people’s personal details ended up being added to the local Tory party’s database.
Despite his best efforts, Macca failed to win police commissioner – but struck it lucky with Thanet.
Now he’s working out his next advancement – high office in Westminster.
Looking at the penchant for army camouflage and military hardware he exhibits on his website, something in the defence ministry would be right up his foxhole.
But bog standard MPs don’t get to be ministers just by smiling and kissing babies. They need support in the right places. They need people who know Westminster. People who can press buttons, fix things, deliver results.
People like Sam Armstrong.
Armstrong is still only 23, but set himself on a trajectory for power early on, when he was a student of history and politics in Nottingham University.
It was the summer of 2014, when the words below, were written that saw his big breakthrough.
“Sam Armstrong, the Deputy Chair for Nottinghamshire Conservative Future [the Tory youth movement], is set to run as the East Midlands Chairman. Sam has decided to stand with only one purpose. To make sure the Conservatives are on top form in 2015…”
Eerily, these words are taken from the blog of a keen, 20 year old Consevative supporter called Elliott Johnson.
Tragically, just a year later Eliott was to trigger a huge scandal in the Tory party by committing suicide at Sandy railway station in Bedfordshire.
Sam Armstrong and Elliott were students together in Nottingham.
Elliott Johnson (left) campaigning with Tory MP Robert Halfon and Armstrong
Initially, at least, they were friends, united in their youthful desire to campaign for the Conservatives.
In his 2014 blog which he called #ThingsElliottSays Johnson wrote:
“Sam is tipped as the leader by #ThingsElliottSays in the race to become the next East Midlands Chairman. He has shown competence in organising campaigning not just in Newark but getting a coach load of students up from Nottingham to campaign in Lancashire for the day. Indeed Sam has helped in a plethora of 40:40 seats across the country from Chester to Croydon or Rosendale and Darwen to Sherwood.”
There was no question that Armstrong was showing his political mettle and gaining a reputation for delivering results. He told Elliott:
“I’m looking forward to the campaign, I have a background in putting the hard yards campaigning on the doorstep for candidates right across the East Midlands and beyond and I’m looking forward to bringing that experience, vision and drive to East Midlands Conservative Future.”
“Doing the hard yards” – means putting in effort to get success, often when it’s not noticed by other people.
But Armstrong’s efforts WERE being noticed by other people.
His track record led him inevitably into being allied with another “high achiever” in the Tory youth camp: Mark “Tatler Tory” Clarke.
Mark “Tatler Tory” Clarke campaigning with Sam Armstrong on Road Trip 2015
Clarke was called the “Tatler Tory” because back in 2008 the Tatler society magazine tipped him as a future cabinet minister – but since then his controversial career has garnered him enough allegations and headlines to fill a year’s worth of tabloid newspapers.
In his time Clarke’s been accused of bullying and sexual harassment and more besides but has constantly denied all allegations against him.
When Clarke and Armstrong first hooked up isn’t clear but the pair were certainly working together on the now infamous Tory battle bus trips.
In 2014 and 2015 the battle buses toured the country bringing eager young Tories to canvass in key constituencies for the 2015 general election. It was called Road Trip 2015 and was seen as an important factor in the Tories’ unexpected victory.
And in June 2014 Elliott Johnson was with Clarke and Armstong on a trip to Great Yarmouth. He wrote in his blog:
“Sam Armstrong …. was keeping his 100% of turning up to all of the Road Trips… Of course Mark Clarke, who runs the Road Trip, had to once again congratulate Sam on his hard efforts.”
“Hard efforts” not “hard yards” – so Sam was now definitely being recognised.
HAPPIER TIMES: Theresa May in 2014 praising Mark “Tatler Tory” Clarke
And even Theresa May, when she was Home Secretary, was impressed with Mark Clarke’s work to which Sam was contributing in a big way. During the 2014 Rochester and Strood by-election campaign, May told Clarke: “What you are doing is absolutely tremendous. Road Trip 2015 is great. Thank you Mark for all you are doing,” and led activists in a round of applause for Clarke.
But in August 2015 a train ran over Elliott Johnson in Bedfordshire and the wheels came off Mark Clarke’s battle bus bandwagon.
Elliott left three letters after his suicide. One of them claimed that Clarke had bullied him. Clarke strongly denied the allegation.
The bubbling rumours and reports of bullying and harassment in the Tory party now boiled over in the press.
One newspaper report even alleged that Sam Armstrong was involved in a plot to blackmail a cabinet minister by laying in wait for him in bushes with a camera. Armstrong denied the story outright.
The Tory party took action. They banned Armstrong and Clarke from attending the Tory Party conference and announced an internal inquiry into the allegations to be carried out by big money lawyers Clifford Chance.
But Elliott Johnson’s father, Ray, fearing a whitewash, reacted angrily. He wrote to the chair of the Conservative Party claiming that the inquiry would look like an attempt to “cover-up the issue of endemic bullying, harassment and intimidation that seems to be seen as acceptable within the party.”
The Clifford Chance inquiry reported this summer. It identified 13 people alleged to be victims of bullying, harassment and inappropriate behaviour at the hands of Mark Clarke – including six accusations of “sexually inappropriate behaviour”.
Mark Clarke’s solicitor responded: “The police investigation into Elliott Johnson’s death and other enquiries are ongoing, and it is not appropriate to respond to allegations until the end of those processes. However, the allegations made against Mr Clarke in the Clifford Chance report are wholly untrue and unsubstantiated. Many are based on totally fabricated media reports. All these allegations are vehemently denied.”
Following the publication of the inquiry’s report Mark Clarke was banned from the Conservative Party for life.
But no action at all was taken against Sam Armstrong. Indeed, the report, which was only published in summary form, didn’t even mention him by name.
And what was the reaction of his boss, MP Craig Macca Mackinlay? He said recently that as the inquiry “didn’t finger” (Mackinlay’s words) Armstrong, then he was happy to continue to employ him.
But why was Macca so keen to take on Armstrong as his “chief of staff” in the first place?
One reason, of course, must have been the part Armstrong played in the campaign which helped Macca unexpectedly beat Nigel Farage and win him his place in the House of Commons.
But against this, Macca must have been aware of the stories circulating about Armstrong’s close colleague Clarke. And he absolutely knew that both of them were banned from the Tory Party conference in 2015.
So then, why, just six months after Armstrong’s ban from the conference, and BEFORE the Clifford Chance inquiry had reported, did he decide to take him on?
Let’s consider what our ambitious “man-in-a-hurry” MP was up to at this time.
Macca hired Armstrong at the beginning of this year. At about the same time he went to Israel on a “fact finding” trip financed by the Conservative Friends of Israel to the tune of £2,000.
A few months later Macca was publicly championing the cause of a company in his constituency called Instro Precision which is owned by Israel’s largest arms manufacturer, Elbit Systems.
Elbit specialises in making the drones which Israel uses both for the survelliance of the Palestinian people living in Gaza – and killing them.
It has been blacklisted by investors across Europe and Scandinavia on ethical grounds.
But undaunted by its parent company’s record, Macca has been singing the praises of Instro, which is based in a Thanet industrial estate.
Macca outside Instro Precision in Thanet
Instro plans to expand – and Macca has promised to help them with their plans.
And when in August he found people protesting against the company, he attacked them savagely.
But what’s interesting is the terms Macca used, declaring: “The protesters trying to bully this company from our area are shameful. Frankly the action reeks of anti-semitism and I’ve had enough of it.”
Let’s have a closer look at this protest.
Called Bikes Against Bombs, it was organised by the east Kent branch of the Campaign Against the Arms Trade, and they targeted FIVE arms companies across Kent in total. Only one of these had any conceivable “semitic” connection and that was Israeli-owned Elbit’s Instro Precision. The other companies were all British or US owned.
The anti-semitic charge was a foolish, unjustified accusation by Mackinlay – but the full significance of it was only to emerge a few weeks later.
It was now late August and news came through that Jeremy Corbyn, fighting to be re-elected leader of the Labour party, was going to appear at an outdoors rally in Ramsgate.
Jeremy Corbyn speaking in Ramsgate
But a day before the rally Mackinlay wrote a letter to Corbyn demanding that the Labour leader ban four of his constituents from the rally because they were “examples of anti-semitism.”
He then tweeted this letter to thousands of followers who in turn retweeted to Corbyn’s political opponents.
One of the four he “outed” was Watch film-maker Christine Tongue. She was surprised and horrified and totally denies the allegation of anti-semitism.
“The allegation that I am in any way anti-semitic is utterly false and ridiculous,” Christine said. “The only evidence Mackinlay put forward was one of my old Facebook posts which has a link to an article by a US Jewish scholar. There is nothing remotely anti-semitic about this article, and what’s really disgraceful is that Mackinlay gave me no chance to defend myself or respond to the allegation before he published it. This was just an out and out smear.”
But it soon became clear why Mackinlay had picked on Christine.
She and two of the people he accused of being “examples of anti-semitism” had all taken part in the protest against Instro earlier that summer. (The fourth, high profile Momentum activist Jackie Walker Macca undoubtedly couldn’t resist throwing in because she’d already been smeared with a false charge of anti-semitism that year.)
Said Christine: “It’s all obviously bound up with Mackinlay’s strange idea that we were targeting Instro Precision because they’re owned by an Israeli-owned company, rather than because of their involvement in a very nasty industry. I think he subscribes to the peculiar idea that any form of opposition to Israel is a form of anti-semitism.”
Christine did in the end manage to get a meeting with Mackinlay, at which he harangued her for having “an unhealthy fixation” with Israel.
The MP, says Christine, was extremely insensitive.
“When I complained about the way his tweet had exposed me to personal danger from people attacking me for being anti-semitic, he told me I was a ‘big girl’ and I could ‘stand on my own two feet’. As I am disabled and have to use a walking stick this is, to say the least, deeply ironic.’”
Their meeting, however, was revealing if only indirectly, as it showed, she claims, how sketchy his knowledge was of the attack he’d launched on her.
“It became clear that he hadn’t read the article he had quoted as evidence of my ‘anti-semitism’. Also he seemed confused about the difference between Twitter and Facebook. In fact, as he eventually admitted, it wasn’t he who’d trawled through my Facebook pages at all but his aide, Sam Armstrong.”
Christine believes the attack was a calculated attempt to embarrass Jeremy Corbyn during his visit to Ramsgate “making use of the kind of spurious anti-semitism smears which Jeremy’s enemies have been resorting to since he became Labour leader.”
But Macca’s aide Sam Armstrong would have been only too well aware of the potency of tweeting charges of anti-semitism as a way of damaging anyone’s reputation.
In fact his associate Mark Clarke employed the same technique on Baroness Sayeeda Warsi – so viciously that she complained to the chair of the party.
In August 2014 Warsi had resigned from the government over the escalation of violence in the Israel–Gaza conflict, describing the government’s position as “morally indefensible.” Never popular with the right of the Tory party, this made her a special target of their wrath.
In January 2015 Warsi wrote to the then chair Grant Shapps accusing Mark Clarke of publicly abusing her on Twitter, implying she was an anti-semite, and demanding Shapps take action against Clarke – which he didn’t do.
Since then, of course, it’s the Labour Party which has been hammered for having problems with “anti-semitism” and the charge has been used to suspend numerous party members – especially supporters of Jeremy Corbyn.
We don’t know what the future holds for Sam Armstrong and we should pass no judgement on him while police enquiries are continuing
But we CAN pass judgement on our MP – a man who’s apparently been spying on his constituents’ social media, and employing Armstrong’s undoubted skills in the political dark arts to help him blacken their names.
What’s your verdict?