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What on Earth is going on with the Conservative Party?

The deluge of Tory sleaze stories means that even the Mark Menzies scandal fits a pattern.

By Rachel Cunliffe

You couldn’t make it up. Or, rather, you could – but if you did everyone would think you’d been watching too much The Thick of It. After weeks of the Conservatives trying as hard as possible to turn the question of whether Angela Rayner should have paid £1,500-£3,500 in capital gains tax on the sale of her house nine years ago into a major story, a Tory MP comes along and demonstrates what a real political scandal looks like.

The tale of Mark Menzies has it all. Money – in the tens of thousands, on multiple occasions – allegedly taken from campaign donations. A 3am phone call to an elderly campaign activist demanding the urgent transfer of funds. Menzies has previously been linked with scandals involving drugs, a Brazilian rent boy, and a drunk dog – although, crucially, according to “a source close to” (perhaps very close to) the MP for Fylde he wasn’t actually the one who gave it alcohol. I suppose at least the dog didn’t get shot on Exmoor.

It’s hard to get your head around the salacious details, as reported in a jaw-dropping exposé by Billy Kenber at the Times. But put those to one side for a moment. Put aside, too, questions of how exactly an elected MP could get himself into this mess (or, in fact, several related messes) and think he would get away with it. And ask instead: what on Earth is going on with the Tory party?

Menzies, we should stress, disputes the allegations and says he has “fully complied with all the rules for declarations. As there is an investigation ongoing I will not be commenting further.” That investigation is being carried out by the Conservative Party, which was alerted to all this – alerted, that is, to accusations that back in December Menzies demanded large amounts of campaign cash in the middle of the night to pay off “bad people” – in January when the MP’s former campaign manager went to the chief whip Simon Hart.

In the three months since, the party has done… what, exactly? Menzies was moved to voluntarily relinquish the whip yesterday, which coincidentally was when the Times story was published. So from January to April, the Conservative whips’ office knew there was a scandal brewing – a scandal that would inevitably become public and be seen as the latest in a long line of Tory sleaze stories.

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As a reminder, so far this parliament we’ve had Conservative MPs losing the whip, resigning or being suspended for allegations including: bullying, sexual harassment, cocaine use, parliamentary porn-watching, child sexual assault and being blackmailed into sharing colleagues’ phone numbers after sexting a scammer on a dating app. In two weeks there’s going to be a by-election – in the constituency next-door to Menzies’ – because the MP there offered to lobby ministers in exchange for cash from the gambling industry.

You’d think CCHQ would be aware of all that. You’d think the crisis comms chaps there (if there are any left) would know that the moment the Menzies “bad people” story broke, people would be asking very reasonable questions such as “did Rishi Sunak know about this?” And “if Rishi Sunak knew about this, why hasn’t he done anything about it for three months?” And “if Rishi Sunak didn’t know about this, what does that say about the Prime Minister’s grip on party management?”

The Tory party line, for now, is that it is “investigating allegations” and that “this process is rightfully confidential”. Just see how long that holds. See what happens at PMQs next week when Keir Starmer has the chance to ask the Prime Minister directly. Sunak will no doubt try to change the subject to Angela Rayner’s tax affairs, but let’s be realistic here: a possible £3,500 bill based on a misunderstanding of tax rules vs a story that involves ringing up a septuagenarian volunteer in the middle of the night to demand double that amount as “a matter of life and death” claiming to be locked in a flat by some blackmailers. Which is more likely to stick in voters’ minds?

There are a few interesting consequences of all this for Sunak. The first is that, with yet another MP suspended from the parliamentary party, the number of no-confidence letters from MPs needed to trigger a confidence vote in the Prime Minister has just dropped from 53 to 52. The second is that the Tories could soon be facing another by-election if Menzies – who was first elected in 2010 in and had a 16,611 majority in 2019 – is pressured to resign, or if the case is passed on to the Commons Standards Committee to investigate.

But the most significant consequence is the heightened sense that the Tory party is in a state of general decay (its parliamentary majority has fallen from 80 to just 43 since the 2019 general election) and that Sunak’s authority is so weak he is barely relevant. Because, shocking as the Menzies allegations are, no one really seems that surprised that another Conservative MP has done something to bring the party into disrepute.

Although they might be surprised at the bit about the drunk dog.

[See also: How America bought up Britain]

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