I've often wondered why Hancock's wildly inappropriate text messages sent to vulnerable constituent 'Annie', which emerged in late 2010 and which he never denied sending, weren't enough for any kind of action from the Liberal Democrat Party at that time, given that he was a Cabinet Member of Portsmouth City Council with oversight of policies and practices which affected the lives of vulnerable people.
The Liberal Democrat Party, either locally in Portsmouth and federally, or both, could and should have acted on the behaviour which Hancock admitted to in 2010 - irrespective of any other pending matters. In fact as far as I can see, those pending matters became a handy excuse for inaction, and helped set up a convenient screen that the local Party and the federal Party chose to hide behind. For years. They left a victim in painful limbo for years. That the Police weren't charging Hancock was transmogrified by leading Lib Dems into 'alternative fact', as they tried and tried to cast a spell upon us all that no wrongdoing had been shown to have taken place. And at a number of points the inaction and delay in dealing with the wrongdoing were blamed upon the victim having complained.
This was the deception that was spouted by Lib Dems from Portsmouth up to London and repeated ad nauseam. So to some extent, this is an essay about the nature of collective denial, protection, fear and illusion-making within a group of people, using what is to me a very stark example of wrongdoing at its heart. For me, living through it, as a colleague of both Hancock and the Council Leader Gerald Vernon-Jackson, both forceful characters, it was troubling and worrying, and life within the Council Group became a toxic miasma of shape-shifting and discordant echoes. The day I finally resigned was a bitter-sweet liberation.
As far as I'm aware, from my own notes and published sources, evidence of the inappropriate texts first emerged in September 2010. It's always genuinely disturbed me that these messages, just on their own, weren't enough to initiate any action by the Lib Dems. After Hancock's eventual apologies and admissions in June 2014 that he 'crossed the line' with a mentally unwell resident, the protestations from the Portsmouth Lib Dems, and senior Lib Dem Party figures, that 'We didn't know!' are, to me, simply not credible. We all knew about the text messages, and who they were sent to. It was all over the media.
A possible conclusion would appear to be that most Lib Dems - and I'll never fully understand how so many of them could take this line and look at themselves in the mirror each day - obviously didn't think that the text messages much mattered. Which in turns suggests that they didn't think that the victim much mattered. Which has horrible connotations given that we're talking about a group of politicians and a vulnerable resident.
Many of these texts were even circulated on sheets of A4 paper at a Council Meeting. I think it was Cllr Steve Wemyss who put one of the sheets of paper down in front of me, at the end of the meeting. I looked at it, and left it on the bench. Interesting fact: the following day the Chief Executive David Williams initiated a phone call with me. He said he'd been asked to ring me by Mike Hancock, who wasn't happy that I'd been seen passing round copies of the text messages. This was classic Hancock - not only did he misrepresent what I'd been doing, but he got someone else to ring me to indicate his displeasure, to fire a warning shot across my bows. Anyway, and unfortunately for Hancock, the ship's cat was well and truly out of the bag as far as those messages were concerned - the Sunday Times referenced them on 26th September 2010, as did the Mail; and the Order-Order political blog published many of them in October 2010. By the following year so had most of the national newspapers.
At the time the texts were first published, I was a Lib Dem councillor and Cabinet Member serving alongside Hancock and Leader Gerald Vernon-Jackson, and had been for many years. It was obvious that their careers were inextricably linked, and that Gerald was poised to take over from Hancock as the parliamentary candidate and then MP for Portsmouth South. Even those of us in the outer wilderness circles of the Portsmouth Lib Dems had heard enough to surmise that, and to surmise that Gerald was relying on Hancock to pass the baton forward nicely and supportively in Rennard's approving glow. I also served alongside backbench councillor Jacqui Hancock, Hancock's wife, who didn't ever have much to say in the Council Chamber but who sometimes had quite a bit to say inside and outside of Group Meetings in defence of her husband. A shy and retiring victim, in my view and in my experience, she was not.
When I first read the text messages and saw to whom they had allegedly been sent, I winced inwardly and was a bit drop-jawed. They made for cringe-making reading. This was the mindset of the man I was supposed to admire and look up to, supposed to work with, supposed to take seriously? What the hell? 'Give me a chance my princess you never know XXX.' Oh ffs. I began to believe that it was actually a remarkably good thing that the man and his wife had never liked me. Who would want to be inside that gruesome inner circle?
I also have no doubt in my mind that had I done what Hancock had done, and it had come to light so very publicly, I'd have been out of that Lib Dem Cabinet within hours.
Yet there was remarkably little movement against Hancock from the Lib Dems. And so at first there was a part of me that initially wondered whether the texts were even genuine? The texts were, to me, so juvenile and sleazy they were hard to believe. And it wouldn't be the first time that lies had been told by a certain group of people - which included a loose alliance of online and real-life trolls - about what some Lib Dem councillors had supposedly done and not done. I had myself been caught in the crossfire between this group and Hancock, and some really stupid and vile stuff had been said about me online. I was accused of making up having a doctorate, for example. I was called a pig and a dog and a nazi and corrupted - and worse. It was absolutely ludicrous behaviour by elements of the 'anti-Hancock league', which only served to build up sympathy for Hancock with his colleagues, and which wasted so much time that could have been much better spent. That a couple of opposition councillors seemed to fairly close to some of the characters who were, frankly, harassing and trolling me, was a factor also in play. I even had this crap brought to my own doorstep, to my home where I lived as a lone parent with my two school-aged children. It was really quite a muddled, nasty environment, and not at all conducive to exposing wrong-doing. Basically, it's hard to believe those people who tell or encourage lies about you. Their behaviour doesn't scream 'veracity'; it obscures the road ahead.
But ... Hancock didn't deny sending the text messages. It was repeatedly reported in the media that he admitted to sending them. His reasoning for his behavior towards the vulnerable resident was that he'd been trying to 'cheer her up'.
Could the texts be classed as a private matter? Most of us with mobile phones have sent private texts we've regretted. I certainly have. But that argument didn't really wash, either. Most people aren't MPs, or senior Council Cabinet members, and most people don't text this way to a person known to them as a constituent with mental health problems. And Hancock didn't seem at all regretful. He argued, rather, that he was trying to 'help'. And I really found that hard to believe given the content of some of those messages.
As soon as the story broke in the Sunday Times in the early hours of the 26th September 2010, the Portsmouth Lib Dem Office at 220 Fratton Road was on the case, and a round robin text was issued forthwith at 09.52. I received mine on my Council-issued mobile phone.
It wasn't quite the response I'd been expecting, but I had hopes that the 'party briefing' would give clarity about the procedures that must surely now be invoked to deal with what was, I personally felt, a pretty dire situation for Hancock. Yes, Hancock's reputation preceded him, and yes, before that it could be argued that it was all private stuff - but this time the reports and the published evidence suggested that he had been involved inappropriately in some way with a vulnerable adult. This was troubling territory.
I was already fed up of the way the Lib Dem Cabinet was operating and the poor behavior that had been especially evident since 2009, and I had by Autumn 2010 already complained to the Portsmouth local party Chairman. I remember too talking a lot to my ward colleague David Fuller about things, at the time and subsequently. The text messages came up frequently - had he heard yet about the 'party briefing'? What was going on? Was there any news?
And as it turned out, there never was a 'party briefing', certainly not one that I was invited to, or David - and I don't think it's feasible for both of Hancock's ward colleagues to have been excluded from one should it have actually taken place. The matter, as far as the Portsmouth Lib Dems and the Lib Dem Party seemed concerned, was not of sufficient gravity to warrant any action whatsoever. Indeed there was a Liberal Democrat Party statement that I came across online the following day describing it as a 'private matter'.
So that was that. The Party said don't say anything, and the Party said it was a private matter - yet there is was, sprawled all over the media. Gerald was reported as being broadly supportive of Hancock, but everyone else was gagged. Bizarre and byzantine.
I find myself going over the events of September and October 2010 over in my mind, a lot. Life on the 27th September went on as normal, which involved me carrying on with the business of local government, working through the day, and being left out of the 'Hancock loop'. On that day I had to sort out the 'ward monies' for Fratton - £300 that ward councillors are allocated each year to give to local good causes - and attend a Cabinet Briefing and an 'Informal Cabinet' meeting (both would have been chaired by Gerald). I met with senior officers at 12.30 and 1 pm (a Southern Water meeting had been postponed), and then attended a Lib Dem Group budget meeting (which would have been chaired by Gerald). I didn't need to wonder about Gerald's position, because this was already in the Portsmouth News:
Gerald might have been comfortable and sanguine about it all, but I wasn't. I discussed it with a number of Lib Dem councillors from 2010 right through to 2013, including whether there could be any possible acceptable context for Hancock's text messages to the woman known only as 'Annie'. Bearing in mind that this early phase of the 'Annie' allegations overlapped with the Katia Zatuliveter affair, I found myself extremely cynical about the very different and often contradictory defences of Hancock being given to me by some of his closest colleagues on the Group. There was always an air with them that I was just a political naif, unaware of the importance of the greater scheme of things, and that I needed to get real and play the long game, and yes Mike was a pain in the ass but we needed him politically inside the tent pissing out and not outside pissing in. And the recipient of the texts? 'Nutter'. 'She's been seen in the lib Dem office.' And the biggest load of clap-trap, given that Hancock had been, according to Katia Zatuliveter, having a four year affair with her up until April 2010 - a relationship accepted by a special tribunal as 'enduring and genuine' on both sides - was that maybe Hancock had developed a genuine feeling of being in love with 'Annie'. And Jacqui Hancock's previously expressed view?
It was a like seeing a parallel universe in operation, where the inner circle could behave how they wanted and say what they wanted, but the rest of us were supposed to keep quiet and carry on. When matters surrounding Hancock and Katia Zatuliveter (who was determined by the special tribunal not to have been a 'Russian spy') were most openly in the public eye, for example, the Lib Dem machine worked hard in Portsmouth to keep us all nicely silent.
Texts sent to my mobile phone from the Lib Dem Office on Fratton Road include:
So many text messages ... don't comment ... don't say anything ...
As for the text messages that Hancock sent to 'Annie', I maintain that they, on their own, were enough for the Lib Dem Party - any part of it, anywhere - to take some kind of action; and I certainly believe that they give the lie to Lib Dem 'shock' and 'upset' about Hancock's eventual apology and admissions of June 2014. I think that this is particularly the case given the discussion that took place between Hancock and the Portsmouth Lib Dem Group (with some local party officers in attendance) during a long and over-emotional Group Meeting on the evening of 7th June 2013 at the Portsmouth Civic Offices. Paraphrasing here, Hancock told us that there was a wide raft of allegations against him and that the judge might find that he was responsible for some of the lower ones. He said that some of the things were true and he might be found responsible for those. It would all be down to one judge in the end. He said, 'I honestly thought she was my friend'.
The whole room was overwhelmingly pro-Hancock, and Jacqui Hancock very much supported him. The atmosphere was, to me, quasi-evangelical, with calls for shows of support for Mike and hands shooting in the air, like declarations of fealty. Other councillors were more ponderous in their support, intoning 'innocent till proven guilty' as though he were facing criminal charges - which he wasn't. If I'm completely honest I found it too intimidating to speak up and speak out. But I made some contemporaneous notes and I typed up a full account of the meeting soon after. I knew I had to act, and I did act - but more of this in another article. Suffice to say, significant swathes of my timeline and material were subsequently shown and made available to Tim Farron and other senior Lib Dem Party figures. Their lack of action is for them to explain.
Other inactions also puzzle me. Councillors sign up to a code of conduct when they take office - it's compulsory, and a matter of law. I have no doubt in my own mind that Hancock breached the Code that applied at the time when he sent those text messages to a vulnerable adult, one whom he knew was registered as such with the Council on which he served as a councillor and Cabinet Member. There are parts of the Code which Nigel Pascoe QC regarded as crucial:
It would also, I've been told, have been possible not only for Hancock to have been be civilly sued for misfeasance in public office but also criminally charged with misconduct / malfeasance in public office. Why the Police did not fully investigate what happened, and why the CPS did not pursue any charges whatsoever, remains a mystery. All these concerns are out in the open - indeed, a letter was written on the 24th June 2015 by the Leader of the Council and other senior councillors to Theresa May and the IPCC on the matter. Councillors were queuing up to sign it - including of course a bunch of 'duped' Lib Dems doing a bit of virtue-signalling.
I learned the hard way that a hell of a lot of politics is manipulative and pre-emptive defensive action against accusation - you might admit 'something' - or get others to do it for you - in a way that allows you to set and control the narrative. There are so many warped boundaries - people often seem to think that what's fair is what you can negotiate, or what you can get away with. So many of Hancock's colleagues appear, by their actions, to have decided it was fair and appropriate for Hancock to have admitted in 2010 to sending these texts, but for them to act completely surprised and distraught when he finally admitted to 'crossing the line' in 2014. In my view, Hancock 'crossed the line' with those texts alone, and it was not just Hancock who seemingly tried to 'shut me down'. The Portsmouth Lib Dems tried too, and their protestations of gullible innocence from June 2014 onwards are, to me, simply unbelievable.
Hancock wasn't kept in the Portsmouth Lib Dem fold because of some deep philosophical stance by the councillors on the meaning of guilt and innocence, or proof and truth - they could see with their own eyes that he had acted in way that was deeply unethical. This was a case not of epistemology but of expediency. He was kept in, I would guess, because it was expedient for someone high up for this to happen.
In the near future I'll be writing about how I contacted Helena Morrisey and, though her, how I gained a meeting in person with the Liberal Democrat Chief Executive Tim Gordon in London towards the end of June 2013, and what subsequently happened. In the meantime, I want to say how much I admire 'Annie' for persevering with her case and seeking justice. It was, in the face of walls of indifference and cynicism, quite some achievement. Even to this day she faces hostility from some die-hard Hancock supporters who remain within the fold of the Portsmouth Liberal Democrats, as of course do I. The federal Party had a chance to clear the mess up, but chose not to. Knowledge of the mess goes all the way to the top, and Tim Farron still has questions to answer if he wants to prove that he does, in fact, lead a party which places ethics and honesty higher up its agenda than it does the political careers of its golden boys.
7th March 2018 - minor edits