Profile: Ben Elliot, Co-Chairman of the Party, under fire for the seating plan which put Jenrick next to Desmond

3 Jul

Ben Elliot is a more significant figure than his title, Co-Chairman of the Conservative Party, might suggest. Just as Andrew Feldman was David Cameron’s man in CCHQ, so Elliot controls the party organisation for Johnson.

The Conservative Party Board is chaired by Elliot, not by his Co-Chairman, Amanda Milling. The new Chief Executive, Darren Mott, a long-term servant of the party, reports to Elliot, not Milling, and Elliot is regularly in Number Ten, conferring with Johnson.

Elliot’s success as a fundraiser for the party is generally recognised. He not only raised the money for last December’s election, but ensured there was a surplus to carry the party through the leaner period after the election – a particularly welcome precaution once the pandemic struck.

The question troubling some Tories is whether, while charming the donors, he is sufficiently careful to avoid unfortunate juxtapositions.

He would not have arranged the seating plan for the now notorious dinner last November at which Robert Jenrick found himself sitting next to Richard Desmond. Nor can he be held to answer for Jenrick’s subsequent conduct, which included sending a friendly text message to Desmond and then ruling in his favour on a major planning application.

The seating plan would have been in the hands of the Treasurer’s Department, which appears to have tried to inform Jenrick’s special advisers about it by way of departmental emails which could not be opened because the general election campaign was already under way.

But because Elliot is in overall charge of CCHQ, he still incurs criticism when things go wrong. The buck stops with him.

“He clearly hasn’t understood the politics,” a senior Tory backbencher complained. “It smells wrong.”

“I’ve never met him,” a second senior Tory backbencher said. “He’s invisible. Maybe that’s a good thing.”

“There are mutterings that he’s a disaster waiting to happen,” an activist who knows the party well comments.

But none of those three knows Elliot. Zac Goldsmith – now as Lord Goldsmith Minister of State for the Pacific, International Environment, Climate and Forests, and Animal Welfare (is there a longer title in the Government?) – has known Elliot “pretty much all my life”, has the highest opinion of him, and calls him “without doubt the most effective person I know in terms of getting things done – he is the go-to person, he has an amazing ability to get people onside, to get people together”.

Goldsmith says it is Elliot’s job “to make sure the party can operate”, by raising the necessary funds: “How politicians behave around party donors is for politicians to figure out.”

This is right: the responsibility for behaving with complete propriety rests with the politicians. On the other hand, they ought not to be placed in situations which might lead to unnecessary embarrassment.

And the donors themselves can be tricky. “Donors put up stuff on Instagram – you despair,” one Conservative remarks. “Desmond is a particularly difficult man,” another observes.

Elliot himself possesses such a tremendous, gung-ho ability to carry off awkward social situations that he may underestimate the difficulties these could pose for less self-assured figures.

His insouciant manner suggests to those around him a refusal to contemplate the danger of scandal.

The élan with which his grandfather, Major Bruce Shand, commanded a squadron of armoured cars in the Western Desert during the Second World War, is displayed by Elliot in the less heroic roles offered by peacetime.

One of Shand’s daughters is now Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, while the other, Annabel, married Simon Elliot, a landowner in Dorset.

Ben Elliot, born in 1975, is almost invariably described, in articles about him, as Camilla’s nephew rather than Annabel’s son.

He does not appear to repine at this branding. After a conventional education at Eton and at Bristol University, where he read politics and economics, he set out to make his way as an entrepreneur.

When he was 24, he and two partners set up a firm called Quintessentially, a “lifestyle management” service for people with more money than sense. It from time to time attracts adverse comment in the press, but Elliot has also shown a flair for promoting it by giving interviews about his own lifestyle.

Here is a piece from The Daily Telegraph in 2011 about his perfect weekend:

“In my heart and soul I am a West Country man and ideally my weekends are spent there. I was born and bred in Dorset and I missed it massively when I was setting up Quintessentially, my lifestyle company, in New York during my twenties and early thirties. On my bedroom wall I had a photograph of Hod Hill, the Iron Age fort behind my parents’ home near Blandford Forum. But these days I also spend weekends in Northleach in Gloucestershire, where my wife Mary-Clare’s family live and where we own a home. I was nervous about emigrating north to Gloucestershire but you’ve got to compromise sometimes…

“We met at an Eric Clapton concert in Madison Square Gardens in New York about three and a half years ago. Her father, Steve Winwood, is a songwriter and musician who formed Blind Faith with Eric Clapton in 1969, and he was also performing in the concert. The Winwoods are half British and half American; they have a second home in Nashville, Tennessee, where Mary-Clare and I spent some time last summer.”

At the end of the interview he was asked, “What are you most ashamed about?” and replied with characteristic boldness: “I don’t have much shame. I don’t really regret anything.”

He also said: “I’d love to represent a West Country seat in the House of Commons.” It would be surprising if he did not still harbour a desire to become an MP, conceivably for The Cotswolds, the seat where Northleach lies.

Politics has been an interest from his earliest years. Goldsmith can remember Elliot at the age of nine or ten at Hawtreys, their preparatory school, getting people to sign petitions.

Recent years have seen an accumulation of offices: in 2015 he was appointed to the development board of the Royal Albert Hall, in 2016 he was deeply involved on the fundraising side of Goldsmith’s unsuccessful campaign for Mayor of London and became a trustee of the Victoria & Albert Museum, in 2017 he joined the board of the Centre for Policy Studies, and in December 2018 Michael Gove made him the Government’s Food Surplus and Waste Champion.

Publicity for the last role offered scope, in an interview with The Times, for one of the self-deprecating anecdotes of which Elliot is a master, used as the intro to the piece by its author, Damian Whitworth:

“Ben Elliot arrives for our breakfast meeting having already been into battle. ‘I had a row with my youngest son today because he wouldn’t eat all his porridge. It’s bloody difficult. Negotiating with him on anything is a nightmare.’

“When Britain’s new food waste tsar was growing up he was not allowed to leave the table until he had finished everything on his plate. His father once made him sit, picking away at the last scrap of lunch, until 5 p.m. Modern parenting trends are less hardcore. Caught between an intransigent 21st-century four-year-old and the horror of throwing food away, what did he do? ‘I ended up eating most of it.'”

Here is a rhetoric which creates a feeling of complicity between Elliot and anyone who has ever had trouble getting a child to eat.

But behind the genuine charm lies something else. Someone who has worked for Elliot said he has two modes, charming and angry.

One day he will walk in smiling, the next day like a storm cloud. He is no mere boulevardier, a tall, relaxed, handsome man who networks for his own amusement, content to look good in his grandfather’s old suits as he moves among fashionable and well-connected people.

He is a serious person who for most the time conceals his seriousness, as Englishmen of a certain type do, behind a screen of affability, but who gets immensely frustrated when he cannot achieve what he has set out to achieve.

In this he is like the Prime Minister, another man often written off as not serious, because his manner seems to indicate  incorrigible frivolity.

The two of them are more ambitious, incisive and energetic than their critics are willing to admit. Both of them want to make dramatic changes to the organisations they are running, not conduct themselves as caretakers.

Last summer, when Johnson became Prime Minister and put Elliot into CCHQ, preparations began for an early general election campaign, to be run by Isaac Levido, protégé of Lynton Crosby, who himself got Johnson elected as Mayor of London in 2008, and ran David Cameron’s successful general campaign in 2015.

Most of the recommendations of the Pickles Review, set up to work out what went wrong in Theresa May’s disastrous campaign in 2017, had already been implemented.

Elliot raised the money for the 2019 campaign, frightening donors with the prospect of a Jeremy Corbyn government. He also ensured that Levido had the space to get on with running the show. No turf wars disrupted what was a highly successful operation.

Johnson since his Oxford days, when the workers, peasants and intellectuals of Balliol were given no glimpse of his upper-class friends, has had a talent for belonging to several different circles which are for most of the time unaware of each other’s existence. Elliot, close to Gove, great friends with the Goldsmith brothers, and a member at 5 Hertford Street, a club owned by Robin Birley, belongs to one such circle.

The press has striven, quite rightly, to find out all it can about Jenrick and Desmond, and to investigate Elliot’s other enterprises, including the Government work obtained some years ago by Quintessentially, and the lobbying firm, Hawthorn Advisors, which he and others founded in 2013.

That sort of journalism is an indispensable check on the abuse of power. But it may also lead, paradoxically, to an underestimate of the abilities of those against whom it is directed; a cutting down to size which misses significant aspects of someone’s character.

Elliot is described, by one who has seen him at close quarters, as an invigorating boss, a genuine believer in entrepreneurship who sees the good in people, and takes it personally when people criticise Johnson, in whose leadership campaign he played a important role.

If Elliot lacked self-confidence, he would be useless as a fundraiser. To ask people for large sums of money in return for the opportunity to eat an over-priced dinner with Jenrick, and bid for an absurdly expensive game of tennis against Johnson and Elliot, requires a degree of impudence.