I want to write about Hancock and 'The Mystery of the Blue Letter', because I personally think it's pretty revealing of the mindsets of the Portsmouth Liberal Democrats who allowed it to happen. It's also the tale of a very funny co-incidence - a real-life 'you honestly couldn't make this shit up' moment - and I've taken the trouble to create an oscar-worthy re-enactment of a particular scene which took place on my own doorstep, using a model (well, a bemused friend), for your entertainment. I hope you enjoy the story.
So what's the significance of a 'blue letter'? It's the invention of Lord Rennard and a classic Lib Dem campaigning tool, and the 'blue letter' will always hold a place in Lib Dem election folklore and Lib Dem hearts & minds.
That Hancock used and was allowed to use a blue letter to campaign and defend himself from 'ALL' the complaints against him - including the 'crossing the line' activity that just over three weeks later he admitted to doing - is pretty extraordinary, especially given he wasn't even standing as a Lib Dem.
In fact when he stood as an Independent candidate in May 2014, Hancock simply wasn't permitted to stand as a Liberal Democrat. He'd been suspended from the Party on the back of the leaking and online publication of the contents of a report into his conduct written by Nigel Pascoe QC. As far as I'm aware, at the time of writing the Pascoe Report is still available to read via the political blog Order Order, so it doesn't appear that any legal action was ever launched (or successfully launched) to have it taken down.
The Pascoe Report first appeared online on 22nd January 2014, shortly after 11am. The media including the BBC were on it immediately, and had their analyses published online within hours.
By the afternoon of that same day, senior figures in the national (federal) Liberal Democrat Party had had a good gander at what was now irrevocably in the public realm, as well at the media reaction. Perhaps they finally realised that the game was up. A statement was issued.
The Portsmouth Lib Dems, however, had other ideas. They'd already let Hancock remain not just a member of the local party - and thus a Lib Dem councillor in Portsmouth - but also a Lib Dem Cabinet Member with oversight of policies on social care and vulnerable people. After Hancock's suspension on 22nd January 2014 they then had a Group Meeting a couple of days later and decided once again to keep him on the Cabinet. (I wasn't there - I was recovering from surgery - but as I've said elsewhere, it should never have hinged on one vote.) That's the point at which I resigned from the Portsmouth Group and Cabinet. I couldn't serve with Hancock, or indeed his more enabling, ardent supporters, any longer. Enough was enough.
And then things took a very peculiar turn indeed. The procedures used at the meeting were declared improper. Just for starters, it appears that Hancock was not only improperly allowed to stay in the meeting whilst the vote was taken, but also managed to vote for himself to stay on the Cabinet, as did his wife Jacqui Hancock. If they'd been required to leave the room, which would have been the correct procedure with regard to pecuniary interests, it could all have been so different.
So a re-run of the meeting was planned - hurrah! - and things should have been put back on track. I could have rejoined the Group and the Cabinet, and the Lib Dem administration could have developed a much better culture and been all the stronger for it. Lessons learned, a boil lanced, review of procedures, blah de blah, sigh of relief.
But no. Defeat was truly snatched from the jaws of victory, and some new convoluted game was now afoot. During this period, I was talking regularly to members of the Portsmouth Lib Dems, and the next thing I heard was that various dramas were in progress, Gerald V-J was threatening to resign (again), people were saying things to each other and shouting down phones during meetings and issuing dire warnings of people being 'taken down', and the next thing I knew was that GVJ and a few others had cooked up a 'deal' to keep Hancock effectively inside the tent and the local party exec had agreed it.
Much to my despair, this deal allowed Hancock to carry on attending Lib Dem Group Meetings, and, furthermore, as if that wasn't bad enough, to run as an Independent in the safe Lib Dem seat of Fratton unopposed by a Lib Dem candidate. Fratton was where I lived and it meant that we wouldn't have a Lib Dem candidate to vote for, if the Portsmouth Lib Dems refused to put anyone up. I couldn't rejoin the Group and the Cabinet under those circumstances. Those text messages alone - that Hancock had never denied sending - should have been enough, years ago, to have prompted action. But over and over and over I'd be told, But he's going to fight it ALL in court. Year on year on year I heard this. I was sick of it. As I said to David Fuller my (other) ward colleague many times, how could he fight things he'd already admitted to? And why, I asked from the summer of 2013 onwards at senior Party level, did Hancock's supposed intention to defend a civil suit trump all other safeguarding and ethical considerations regarding his Lib Dem Cabinet role in Portsmouth?
So, the Portsmouth Lib Dems swapped me for Hancock, and seemed very pleased about that. When I questioned members of the Lib Dem Party's Federal Executive about this deal, however, they weren't so pleased. In fact one Fed Exec member emailed to me in exasperation, saying - to paraphrase - what's Gerald playing at? One minute it's him or Hancock, next minute it's this.
But still, the federal Party didn't act.
And thus, unopposed by a Lib Dem candidate, Hancock stood for Fratton ward, and started pushing out literature with the full knowledge and support of Portsmouth Liberal Democrat members. It's long been reported that members of the Portsmouth Liberal Democrats helped to put out election literature for Hancock for the poll on 22 May 2014 without any of them ever, as far as anyone is aware, having this queried by the national (federal) Liberal Democrat Party.
In one leaflet, Hancock was able to boast that 'I am backing the Lib Dem council administration and they are not standing against me'. Additionally, some Portsmouth Lib Dem councillors and party members were happy to be directly associated with Hancock's leaflets, either appearing in them, producing them or helping to distribute them, and this was never, as far as I am aware, challenged by the federal Liberal Democrat Party.
The final piece of literature that Hancock and his Portsmouth Lib Dem helpers put out was his 'blue letter', which I think probably shows how much he wanted to be perceived as still being part of the Lib Dem machine, presumably for electoral advantage. But can we actually show that the Portsmouth Lib Dems wanted this, too? Can we say beyond the balance of probabilities that Portsmouth Lib Dem members themselves assisted with the distribution of these 'blue letters' to the electorate?
The 'blue letter' pictured above - in the classic colour, format, font and size for Lib Dem literature - is the actual one that arrived at my house on election day - 22nd May 2014 - courtesy of a member of the Portsmouth Liberal Democrats (let's call him 'D'). And here's the funny part. We'd seen D earlier that day, when I'd walked round with a good friend to vote at our respective polling stations. We were heading from Penhale Infant School to Fratton Community Centre, and approaching the junction at the top of Clive Road. This is just around the corner from the Portsmouth Lib Dem office on Fratton Road, where there is limited parking, and people visiting the Lib Dem office frequently park on this section of Clive Road. And who should I see getting out of a car with a couple of empty backpacks but 'D'. He was with another person I didn't know. 'Bloody hell.' I said to my friend. 'Look, that's 'D' - I bet they're going to pick up leaflets from the Lib Dem office.'
We walked on to the community centre and my friend voted - there wasn't a queue - and as we walked back to Clive Road, D and his helper also walked round the corner from the direction of the Lib Dem office and towards their car at the top of Clive Road, this time carrying backpacks that were clearly full and heavy, and they slung them in the car and drove off.
We weren't expecting to find D subsequently on my own doorstep a hour or so later. It was one of those 'Fratton's A Village' events, a lovely karma moment, where my friend opened my front door to step outside for a roll-up and there was D, apparently looking into my black metal postbox on the wall. My friend swears that D's right hand was in the slot of the postbox; and that D suddenly had an 'oh fuck' look on his face, jumped back, shoved a blue letter in my friend's hand, and walked off down the road, not even stopping to post letters through my immediate neighbours' letterboxes. And thus, I am the proud possessor of an 'Independent blue letter' personally delivered to my door by a member of the Portsmouth Liberal Democrats, on behalf of Mike Hancock.
Ultimately this ridiculous arrangement allowed UKIP to win the council seat. That was the direct result of the idiotic decision by the Portsmouth Lib Dems not to oppose Hancock in Fratton in May 2014. There was far too much damaging material in the public domain, such as Hancock's text messages, for the electorate to continue to support him. As it happens, Julie Swan turned out to be a very good ward councillor for Fratton, but that's not my point here. My point is that through their actions, the Lib Dems lost a safe Lib Dem seat in their secure heartland in a city that had bucked the national trend in the Lib Dems' favour in 2011-2013. That's a pretty clear message from the electorate, and Hancock's drubbing was spectacular. He didn't even come second. He limped in third.
It was the beginning of the end of the 'bucking the trend' for the Liberal Democrats in Portsmouth. In 2014 they lost overall control of the Council and handed over power to a Conservative minority administration. Jacqui Hancock lost her seat to UKIP, and failed to regain it in 2015 and 2016, losing both times to a Portsmouth Labour Party that was doing pretty badly elsewhere in the city.
On 18 June 2014, Hancock issued his wide-ranging apology to his vulnerable victim - the young woman he'd accused in his 'blue letter' of 'suing him for money'. There was no court case. Hancock didn't contest a single complaint in court, let alone 'ALL' of them.
Hancock's eventual admission came after the vulnerable constituent had suffered huge emotional pain and damage, and months after I had resigned on principal from a job I loved because I could no longer live with the cognitive dissonance of the Liberal Democrats. Nobody else resigned. Nobody else actually took any kind of hit over this. Nobody else stood up to be counted.
And one final thought for the Portsmouth Lib Dems to ponder. It's just my personal view, but I do think that it's possible that Hancock was, at the point the 'blue letter' was going out with your help and support, already planning his High Court apology and admissions. The election took place on the 22nd May. The apology was issued on the 18th June - but on the back of a mediation session that took place some two weeks earlier, and which itself would have required some advance planning.
Think about that. Then think about those text messages you knew about in 2010. You knew what I knew. And of course you knew about the Pascoe Report. Some of you knew what was in it way before it was leaked and published on Order Order. I walked, you stayed. Why?