Valentine’s Day holds acutely painful memories for former Government special adviser Richard Holden and his girlfriend, Charlotte.
Their first one as a couple was so traumatic and far removed from the red roses and hearts ideal, they would rather forget every last detail of it.
‘Charlotte and I had only been together a couple of months. On New Year’s Eve 2016, we’d posted our first selfie as a couple kissing in front of fireworks,’ recalls Richard, 33, who met his 23-year-old girlfriend when they both worked on Theresa May’s leadership campaign.
‘Six weeks later, on the most romantic day of the year, I was being interviewed under caution at Sutton police station, accused of groping another woman, while Charlotte sat alone in a pub near the station for hours with a glass of house white waiting for me.’
Rebuilding his life: Richard Holden with his girlfriend Charlotte Ivers. Mr Holden was an aide to Theresa May – and found himself on trial for sexual assault after being accused of groping a woman at a party
That day marked the start of a 15-month ordeal which cost Richard his £60,000-a-year political career, £100,000 in legal fees and lost earnings and tested his new relationship to the limit.
Shocked to receive a call at his office from the Metropolitan Police in February last year, informing him he was under investigation for sexual assault, Richard agreed to attend Sutton station, South London, for an interview. Thinking it was all a mistake, he travelled by train from London Victoria to Sutton on February 14, confident that it would take a just few minutes to clear up before they happily carried on with their lives.
Charlotte went to join him after work, thinking the interview would take only 30 minutes, or so, instead of hours.
‘I was astonished when the accusation was put to me that I’d groped a woman at a party at my house in South London just before Christmas two months earlier,’ says Richard, who was immediately placed on ‘special leave’ from his job after his accuser also lodged a complaint with the Cabinet office.
Mr Holden endured a 15-month ordeal which cost him his £60,000-a-year political career, £100,000 in legal fees and lost earnings and tested his new relationship to the limit
‘Up until that point, I’d had no idea of the nature of the complaint. I was horrified to be told I’d supposedly put my hands inside the coat of a woman at the party, dropped them down to the back of her knees, then up her skirt, grabbing her over her tights and underwear and reaching between her thighs.
‘It was all total nonsense and I told the police it simply hadn’t occurred.
Charlotte had been at the party, as had many of our friends. We’d chosen the party to let everyone know we were an item.
‘I was 100 per cent certain everyone present that night could confirm nothing of the sort had occurred in an open-plan room in front of guests. I told the police I didn’t remember any interaction with the complainant at all, or it was so mundane, so as not to remember.
‘I thought it would only be a matter of days or weeks before detectives — having spoken to witnesses — realised I was innocent and there was no case to answer.’
Today, Richard Holden bristles with anger as he describes how wrong he was about that. Police went on to leave him in ‘limbo’ for nine months before he was charged last November with a Category 3 sexual assault, specifically ‘over the clothing touching’.
He accuses detectives of ‘failing to follow all reasonable lines of inquiry’ and properly investigate the allegation against him in their determination to secure a high-profile conviction.
Richard shakes his head with disbelief that — despite there not being a single witness to support the complainant’s allegation — the Crown Prosecution Service allowed the case to go ahead. A jury took just minutes to acquit Richard following what he calls a ‘farcical’ five-day trial in May.
Witness after witness, he says, contradicted the prosecution case that the alleged victim had been groped during an ‘over-the-top hug’ as she was leaving a party at the rented house in Kennington, South London, that Richard shared with Charlotte and a third male housemate.
It was claimed a drunken Holden had to be dragged off her by another party-goer who screamed at him ‘get off’ or ‘f*** off’, although not a single witness took to the stand to say they saw or heard this, or even that Holden was anything other than tipsy.
‘I was horrified to be told I’d supposedly put my hands inside the coat of a woman at the party, dropped them down to the back of her knees, then up her skirt, grabbing her over her tights and underwear and reaching between her thighs. It was all total nonsense and I told the police it simply hadn’t occurred,’ said Mr Holden
‘There were so many versions of events from the complainant, told to different people, it was farcical, but no one who was present saw or heard anything untoward,’ says Richard, adding: ‘The prosecution case was totally reliant on her statement alone, and it was blown apart in court. Every single person at that party was saying that what she said happened did not happen.’
Within 20 minutes of leaving the party attended by up to 30 people over the evening, the court heard, the complainant had sent the three friends she’d gone with a group WhatsApp message, thanking them for the invitation, saying she’d had a great night and adding a smiley face emoji.
The jury further heard that after that evening the woman did not make a formal complaint until February about the party in December.
She spoke to the then Deputy Chief Whip and to the now Home Secretary Sajid Javid. In her evidence to the court, the woman said she did not initially report the alleged incident, saying she didn’t realise it was a crime.
The jury acquitted Richard, who was then told by the judge to leave court ‘without a stain on his character’, adding: ‘I hope you can pick up your career where it left off.’
Now, after the worst 15 months of his life, Richard says he is determined to do just that, likening himself to a deep sea diver slowly coming up for air after being trapped under the waves for so long.
It’s been so completely surreal and utterly devastating. From day one, it’s made no sense to me at all
During that time, he was forced to resign from his Government job, then sacked from his new PR job when his being charged with sexual assault inevitably hit the headlines.
Since then, he has been reliant on short-term temporary contracts for income and friends for a roof over his head, after his house-share rental contract came to an end. Despite his innocence, he expects to recoup no more than 20 per cent of his legal costs.
He has no idea how he is going to repay all those loyal friends and acquaintances for their support and financial assistance.
Without them, he would have had no way to pay his ‘colossal’ legal bills up front, having already exhausted his small savings while unemployed.
To add to his misery, last summer he and Charlotte temporarily split up, when the loss of his job and the strain of the police inquiry became overwhelming. But by the time the case came to trial, she was back by his side.
‘Charlotte never doubted me for a second, but it all got too much and we both agreed it would be best to split up. We’d only been together for ten weeks when all this happened, which is bloody early for any new relationship to cope with.
‘I was unemployed, couldn’t get a job and this case was the only thing I could talk about. I wasn’t sleeping, neither was Charlotte. I’d stay up until 3am or 4am watching telly or going for long walks in the hope that I would fall asleep exhausted.
‘I struggled to pay the rent and spent my days stuffing my CV into the hands of anyone who’d take it, playing video games to numb my brain and sinking into despair.
‘But we remained friends and Charlotte was a huge support as I waited for the next bomb to explode, and we realised there was still something between us and we wanted to go through this together.’
Mr Holden was an aide to Theresa May
Once tipped as a possible future MP, Richard now wants his old life back along with his political career. Last week his suspension from the candidates list was lifted, and he says he longs to serve his party and the country he loves. It is an ambition he has held since childhood.
Born in Lancashire, the eldest son of two teachers, Richard was a 13-year-old grammar school boy when his passion for politics was first ignited.
As a teenager, he volunteered all over the North supporting candidates and later, while studying government and history at the London School of Economics, worked part-time for the party at Central Office.
After graduating, he climbed the ranks from a temporary one-month contract in the IT department of Tory HQ to eventually become deputy head of press.
He left that job to contest the Preston seat in the 2015 election, losing to Labour. At the time of his arrest, he was a special adviser in the Ministry of Defence.
His public fall came at the height of the so-called ‘Pestminster’ scandal, when several MPs were accused of harassing staff and a week after his boss, former defence minister Sir Michael Fallon, resigned admitting his behaviour towards women in the past had ‘fallen short’ after it emerged he’d touched a female journalist’s knee.
‘I don’t know why I was accused. Both my solicitor and barrister said to me: “Whatever you do, don’t try to wonder why things have happened the way they happened.” You can’t get inside the mind of someone else,’ Richard says.
‘All we can imagine is that what was an off-hand comment to someone, snowballed into something else, was repeated to someone else and further snowballed to the point where there was no going back without losing face.’
Is he angry with the woman who accused him of groping her? ‘I don’t think about her at all. What’s the point? I could tie myself up in knots thinking about it,’ he says.
My anger is reserved for the police and the CPS, who are supposed to prosecute — not persecute. It’s a fundamental tenet of English law that if the evidence is not there, they should have the wherewithal to make that clear.
‘By the time the court case started, I was absolutely certain there was no jury on earth that would convict me. But it was very tough for my family seeing me in the dock. This whole thing has been very hard for my parents and two younger brothers, whose support has been phenomenal.’
After his acquittal, Richard remembers Charlotte turning to him on the steps of Southwark Crown Court and voicing her bewilderment at what they’d been through with the words: ‘How did we end up here?’
‘I replied: “I have no idea.” I still don’t. It’s been so completely surreal and utterly devastating. From day one, it’s made no sense to me at all,’ he says.
‘It’s like being sucked out of a hole in the side of an aeroplane mid-flight. One minute you’re strapped into your seat, travelling with everyone else in the same direction, and the next you’re just gone.
‘Your life goes into freefall and every time you hit a ledge, something comes along to knock you off and fall further down. Everything is taken away from you and there’s nothing you can do about it.
The only thing that kept me going was the absolute knowledge that I was completely innocent and the truth would prevail. But it was very rough.
‘You lose all faith in the system, particularly the police, when the whole weight of the State comes down on you. When it’s you versus the machine, it can feel very overwhelming.
‘What really annoys me is that all the resources spent on my case — tens, if not hundreds of thousands of pounds — could have been spent investigating cases where real crimes have been committed.
‘Friends of mine have been sexually assaulted and raped. I want anyone who walks into a police station to make an allegation to be treated with dignity and respect.
‘If a member of my staff came to me claiming they’d been sexually assaulted, I would also have advised them to go to the police. But that doesn’t mean to say the police don’t have a duty to society as a whole to investigate all reasonable lines of inquiry.
‘If something is clearly nonsense, they have a duty to knock it out. I just don’t understand why the police spent the resources the way they did on my case.’
Richard is now calling for Parliament to debate whether those accused of sexual crimes should now be granted the same anonymity as complainants, unless convicted. ‘There is a stigma which surrounds sexual crimes, and rightly so. If people are convicted of sexual offences, it’s right that as a society we have a view on that,’ he says.
‘But it’s a real danger if people haven’t been convicted. It hangs over them regardless. There’s a permanent feeling of guilt before innocence. It’s a horrible thing to be accused of.’
‘I was relatively fortunate in that it was an easy thing to do to prove I was innocent. I knew it would be a long hard, slog, but I’d get there in the end.’
Richard says he is determined that his ordeal will not change him as a person. ‘I’ve always been an outgoing, gregarious and confident person and I don’t want the good in me to be destroyed by anger, bitterness and resentment over what happened to me.
‘Now I’m just trying to find a new normal. Charlotte and I both agreed there was still something there between us. I hope we last the distance.’