Five very important men sat in a small room in the heart of the Parliamentary estate in London on a warm afternoon on 3rd June 2013. One of them was accused of sexually harassing and abusing a vulnerable female constituent, 'Annie'. Three of the other four had either been written to by her, or had met her to hear her allegations in person. They were all high-fliers - four Members of Parliament and a hotly-tipped successor, senior figures with illustrious careers behind and ahead of them. Or so they thought.
Of those five men, today only one is an MP – and that was a close call in May 2015 in more ways than one. He is Alistair Carmichael, the Liberal Democrat Chief Whip, former Secretary of State for Scotland, Elder of the Church of Scotland, a man whose constituency predecessors in Orkney and Shetland were the Liberal giants and fellow lawyers Jo Grimond and Jim Wallace, stalwarts who also held the key role of Party Chief Whip; and any incumbent of that constituency knows that they stand on the shoulders of ethical, mighty, thoughtful, political trailblazers.
And this is how the Chief Whip’s story intersects with Annie’s.
‘We got the best deal we could get,’ Mike Hancock and Gerald Vernon-Jackson told a packed Group Meeting of Liberal Democrat councillors and local party officers in Portsmouth, a few days after arriving back from their meeting in London with Nick Clegg, Simon Hughes and Alistair Carmichael. When I later recounted this story to Tim Farron in person, his immediate response was, ‘They shouldn’t have been doing deals!’ I knew exactly what he meant, and he was right. Over such serious allegations, they should have been following process.
Hancock, facing what he did, should have been subject to process like the rest of us would have been. He’d already admitted in court in February 2011 – according to reports in the national press – that he had had ‘a kiss and a cuddle’ and 'a strong relationship' with a young person on work experience in his office. He was the MP employer, and at least in his late thirties; she was a 17 year old, who had come in to seek work experience with her mum, and Hancock had no business being in any kind of ‘close and affectionate' relationship [his reported words] with a girl under 18 years old over whom he was in a position of power. Moreover, he was in a position of trust. What with this and the text messages to 'Annie', which had entered the public domain by December 2010, Hancock should have been yesterday's man.
But the Lib Dem MP Hancock was allowed on that June afternoon in 2013 to go into a meeting with GVJ and do ‘a deal’ with the Party Leader, the Deputy Party Leader and the Chief Whip over his parliamentary career, completely ignoring his role and his impact back in Portsmouth as a ward councillor, Council Cabinet member, colleague, Party member and member of the Group. Yeah, cheers for that, Nick, Simon, Alistair. Thanks a bunch.
Process was subsumed by expediency it appears, over and over again, despite the Rennard debacle, despite the Morrissey investigation and report, and despite the fact that Hancock wrote to and about Annie on his Council headed paper as well as his MP’s and thus acted in his capacity as a councillor as well as her MP. Process should have meant that in June 2013 the matter be referred back to the only people in the Lib Dem Party with the power to investigate and suspend (or so I was told), the little-known but powerful ‘Regional Parties Committee’ (RPC) chaired then by Mike Wheatley - but for a reason I’m still waiting to be told about, it seems that it wasn’t.
(It’s a labyrinthine system, even after changes since 2013, and crazily difficult to navigate, with or without the ‘help’ of a ‘pastoral care officer’ – and I had to go to Electoral Commission records to find out who the current Chair is and when the last one left.) (It’d be interesting to know what Mike Wheatley did with the file of personal data he had of mine that he had been sitting on rather than investigating for quite a long time. But that’s another story ...)
The RPC weren’t ignorant of the allegations. I didn’t learn this until November 2017, but the RPC had refused to act on Annie’s dossier back in 2012, a bizarre decision that was passed on in a letter to Annie by the Liberal Democrat ‘Head of Compliance’ (read that in a David Tennant voice for extra bemused effect) with the words ‘that has to be the end of the matter’.
Just how wrong could the Head of Compliance have been? It very much wasn’t the end of the matter. Annie served High Court papers in February 2013. This seemed to rouse the Party from its torpor, and suddenly the Parliamentary Chief Whip became involved.
So how effective was he? And how much did Alistair Carmichael know about the case before that meeting with Hancock? The evidence reveals that he had had numerous communications with Annie’s solicitor Harriet Wistrich, and that she supplied him with various files and the particulars of the claim – effectively the same information given to Nigel Pascoe, and before that the Lib Dem Party. Equally importantly, Alistair Carmichael also met in person with Annie, who travelled up to London to Harriet’s office for the meeting accompanied on the trip by a supportive companion. I asked Annie what she recalls about the meeting with Carmichael. ‘He was late,’ she says. ‘And he forgot to take the massive file away that Harriet had made for him and he had to come back for it.’ Was it a good meeting? ‘I asked him lots of questions. It’s all on the recording.’ (And so it is.) But he took the file away? ‘Yes.’ She also recalls that he seemed uncomfortable, even embarrassed at times. He explained his remit but she found it hard to follow (and this caused disappointment to Annie when Hancock was allowed to resign the parliamentary whip but otherwise carry on pretty much as normal).
I can well imagine the Elder of the Church of Scotland feeling uncomfortable. Annie doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to expressing what happened to her. She talks eloquently about what she has been through; and she supplied her solicitor Harriet – an expert in this branch of law, whom Annie found and engaged herself from early on in her fight – with the testimony and evidence that created the dossiers provided to people like Alistair Carmichael, Nigel Pascoe and the RPC. Contact with Annie, whether directly or through Harriet, makes it impossible not to know the specifics of her allegations.
Annie also doesn’t hide her frustration with a system that had delivered her so little justice and conversely so much stress and bullshit. She’s kept the complete archive on her unresolved case – letters (including to Nick Clegg and from GVJ), emails, phone records, screen shots, court records and recordings. She’s a historian of her own past and present.
We’re similar in that regard. I took a look at my own copious notes from 2013, especially my notes on what I was told by my Group and Party back then. Curious to see how Annie’s records matched or mismatched with mine, and curious about the role of Alistair Carmichael, I spent weeks studying them, cross-referencing, making notes and verifying evidence.
The shambolic nature of what passes for ‘discipline’ and ‘equality’, and the wilful lack of understanding of process, in the Lib Dem Party is laid bare to see in our combined archives. Even the Head of Compliance, Dave Allworthy, seems a bit all over the place when it came to dealing with Hancock, trying to close down Annie’s case in a letter of 2012 – ‘that has to be the end of the matter’ - and then playing ‘wait and see’ with me when I met him and Tim Gordon the Chief Executive in Lib Dem HQ (a meeting brokered for me by Helena Morrissey) in London in late June 2013.
Hancock was only finally suspended from the Party on 22nd January 2014, and only after the Pascoe Report had been leaked. The statement issued by ‘a Lib Dem Spokesperson’ to the media that day was very interesting:
‘The Liberal Democrats have this afternoon, for the first time, had sight of [the Pascoe Report]’ [BBC reporting].’
But that can’t be right, can it? Not only had a significant number of Liberal Democrats seen the report since its completion in August 2013, but it had been discussed widely by Lib Dems, and a redacted version discussed extensively in the media the previous year (eg in the Guardian, December 2013). The inappropriate texts had been public knowledge for years. And yet no-one suggested suspending him prior to the Pascoe Report being made public. It’s hypocrisy. The Lib Dem Party withdrew the parliamentary whip from him – you could actually argue that Alistair Carmichael technically did everything in his power that he had the authority to do – but yet ... but yet ... he did not appear to press for his appropriate colleagues to even look into suspending Hancock from the Party.
Why not? That’s a big question that deserves an answer.
The decision not to suspend Hancock in June 2013 left me stuck with him as a working colleague in Portsmouth on the Council and the Council Cabinet. And yes I did mind very much - hence my approach to Helena Morrissey, and her in turn asking Tim Gordon to meet with me. (I appreciate what she did, even though it turned out to be a waste of my time and money going up there.) To me, Tim Gordon and Dave Allworthy had no real explanation as to how and why Clegg, Hughes and Carmichael had forced Hancock to resign the parliamentary whip – an action based on the existence of the allegations – but couldn’t act on his role in Portsmouth as a Party member until the results of the court case were known. Nonsensical. But again, why?
Was it that the RPC wouldn’t agree to hear the allegations again? Was it fear of something or someone? Why didn’t Clegg and Carmichael push this further with Mike Wheatley and his RPC committee members? Or was a ‘deal’ really done on the 3rd June 2013?
This is where I flip to my own detailed notes of what happened at that Group Meeting on the 7th June 2013. The fact that Hancock was so scathing about Alistair Carmichael makes me actually warm somewhat to the Chief Whip.
"Most of the 25 Lib Dem councillors were present, including Cllr Mike Hancock MP who had resigned the Lib Dem Party whip four days earlier on 3rd June as an MP, but who remained as a Lib Dem councillor and Cabinet Member. We were told this was Gerald’s decision in a letter circulated to us all. [Attached.] There were also some candidates and local party workers present, so it was a packed committee room ...
... After we had discussed the Council agenda for Tuesday, Mike then said that he wanted to say something about his position. The Chair allowed this, and further allowed it to become a one and a half hour free-for-all. Gerald seemed comfortable with this. During this phase of the Group Meeting both Gerald and Mike referred to going to London on 3rd June to get ‘the best deal we could get’.
Mike began by giving his account of what had happened at the meeting in London on the evening of the Monday 3rd June. ‘It was obvious when we walked in that Clegg had already made up his mind.’ He said that he was allowed to have Gerald with him, but that Gerald was told that he wasn’t allowed to speak. ‘It was bizarre’. He said that they were told that they had to leave the room to speak, decide what Mike was to say, and then to come back into the room for Mike to say it ...
... Mike talked about the unfairness of the process, about the letters he was made to exchange with Carmichael, which he said were all drafted by Carmichael, and how they had been much harder on him than Huhne. He said he chose to resign although he implied that he actually had no choice because ‘Clegg had already made up his mind that I had to go’. [Therefore the ‘deal’ done with Clegg referred to by both him and Gerald must have been about his staying a Lib Dem, a Lib Dem councillor, and a Lib Dem Cabinet Member?] ...
... Mike Hancock also said that Carmichael had asked him to now ‘call off’ the MPs who had been supporting Mike such as [NAME OF MP REDACTED] - to tell them to stop phoning and supporting Mike ... "
I think it's of utmost significance that GVJ has admitted to journalist Miles O’Leary that the phrase ‘the best deal’ was indeed used to the Group:
“Councillor Eleanor Scott said at this week’s meeting of the full council that Cllr Vernon-Jackson and Mr Hancock told the Lib Dem group last year they got ‘the best deal possible’ after a meeting with Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg which resulted in Mr Hancock deciding to give up the party’s parliamentary whip while his conduct was being investigated. Cllr Vernon-Jackson admitted to The News such a comment had been made by either him or Mr Hancock. ‘A comment to that effect would have been made, because Mike Hancock was protesting his innocence and didn’t think he should have had the whip withdrawn,’ he said.” [The Portsmouth News, 17th July 2014]
GVJ’s letter to the Portsmouth Liberal Party members was pretty unequivocal about his own authority and loyalties. The 'spin' in it is pretty impressive - he appears to suggest that he and Mike made the decisions and had and have all the control. Yet to the Portsmouth councillors at the Group meeting, Mike was portrayed as a victim. In Alistair Carmichael’s email of 31st May 2013 to Harriet Wistrich it’s arguably made out to be Carmichael’s and Clegg’s decision:
Thank you for sending me the particulars of claim. I have now concluded my investigation and have reported my findings to the Leader who has instigated formal disciplinary proceedings under our group standing orders. I shall meet Mr Hancock on Monday as part of that process along with the leader and deputy leader of the party. I would expect to be able to inform you of the decisions made at that meeting some time after its conclusion."
And then on the evening of the 3rd June:
... Following the meeting between Mike Hancock, Nick Clegg, Simon Hughes and myself. Mr Hancock wrote to me offering to stand down from membership of the Parliamentary Liberal Democrat Party pending resolution of the legal proceedings raised against him by your client. I have accepted that resignation and accordingly as of tonight Mr Hancock ceases to be in receipt of the Liberal Democrat whip in the House of Commons. I would expect the party press office to be issuing copies of our exchange of letters confirming this to the press later tonight. We shall obviously review the position at the conclusion of the court case.’"
And this was the point where Carmichael and Clegg and Hughes – or just Clegg – could and should have passed the matter on (or back) to the chair of the RPC Mike Wheatley. They had already shown that they could take action over Hancock prior to the conclusion of the court case. So why leave that action incomplete?
What actually happened in that room on the 3rd June 2013? And who did hold the power? And who exerted it, and partly withheld it, and why?
In many ways could this be seen to be all about GVJ and protecting his position? But why would the Party leaders grant GVJ a wish in the face of such (apparently) clear evidence that Hancock needed to be suspended? Was it GVJ’s friendship with Rennard? His friendship with Cable? Was it GVJ’s sitting alongside Clegg on the Lib Dem Federal Executive? Was it GVJ's being given responsibility for holding on to the Portsmouth South constituency, and Hancock knowing where the ‘bodies are buried’? Who knows.
To me it’s a bit suspicious that six months later the RPC (or someone) was suddenly able to act and suspend Hancock the day after the Pascoe Report was leaked to the media and the shit hit the fan in a very public way. Was that the moment a ‘deal’ was off? And I know from emails to me at that time that a couple of members of the Federal Executive were about as pissed off with GVJ as they were with Hancock over the game-playing. What on earth was GVJ playing at, we all wondered, as we imagined his career and reputation slowly and inexorably disappear down the toilet along with Hancock's. The deal, whatever it might have been, had spectacularly backfired.
So what next?
As Chief Whip, Alistair Carmichael serves alongside Vince Cable, the new Lib Dem Party Leader (whom it was reported by the national media refused to consider Lord Rennard’s return to the Lib Dem front bench - good for Vince Cable). The Deputy Leader, Jo Swinson, is reportedly committed to action to tackle abuses of power and poor behaviour, admitting she could have previously done more.
I’d like to think that Alistair Carmichael, Vince Cable and Jo Swinson can finally help to give Annie the resolution she deserves, by bringing their influence to bear in a positive way and making the appropriate referrals, particularly to the Independent Police Complaints Commission. Hancock may well be gone from the Lib Dem Party, but what he did and how it was supposedly investigated by the Police still leaves many unanswered questions in respect of justice, and this unfinished business still taints the Liberal Democrat Party.
Furthermore, Hancock’s enablers still remain in the Party and here also justice is still delayed. Alistair Carmichael and Vince Cable know this, and could and should now push other matters to the RPC or its latest equivalent for consideration, especially as its new Chair Dr Margaret Joachim - whom I believe is also Deputy Chair of the Lib Dem English Council - seems able and willing to suspend and investigate quickly and to respect timely process. Importantly, no-one previously involved in any part of the 'deal', including the decision to let Hancock stand for the Portsmouth City Council elections as an Independent unopposed by a Lib Dem candidate - a number of Lib Dems from Portsmouth, Eastleigh and beyond - should be allowed to make any decisions about or be involved in this process. Indeed, their roles and actions should themselves be under scrutiny.
And in particular, Carmichael, Cable and Swinton should all support Annie’s campaign to get the troubling matter of the lack of police and CPS action reviewed not just by the IPCC - because the whole matter absolutely should be looked at properly, including the interviewing of witnesses - but also by the Government’s sexual misconduct inquiry. In this latter regard I know that Annie has the support of the Leader of Portsmouth City Council, and I am glad about that. The Honours Forfeiture Committee could also be asked to have a look at Hancock's CBE. This isn’t ‘playing politics’ – I’m not a politician anymore and Annie has never been involved in politics – it’s about justice.
And to be honest, if Alistair Carmichael is a decent man, which his friends say he is, I think that his influence is needed now more than ever. Whenever and wherever I looked for process and justice, and whenever and however Annie and pressed the Party, Parliament, the Police and the CPS for justice, it wasn’t there. She had to beat her own path to justice at the doors of the High Court with her pro bono lawyer Harriet Wistrich, a fact that the Lib Dems (especially in Portsmouth) twisted and used as an excuse for their own inaction – not just with Annie, but also with me – and then called this inaction ‘due process’.
And Annie and I - we’re not going away.
Acknowledgements and thanks to: Annie and Harriet Wistrich. I'd also like to acknowledge journalists and bloggers who have covered so many aspects of the Hancock story, including Julie Bindel, Miles O'Leary, Daniel Foggo, Paul Staines, Peter Henley, Michael Crick and Andrew Hough.
Minor edits 20-12-17 and 21-12-17. Link added 22-12-17.