History's a funny thing, full of other people's place-markers and reminders of changed allegiances, and the history of the political shenanigans on Portsmouth City Council is no exception. Just one factor alone, the size of the cohort of councillors who have 'crossed the floor' (switched sides to another political party), makes the instability palpable. Why so many shifts of loyalty? Why so much chopping and changing, and inconsistency of tenure? To me, looking back, the flouncings across the floor and the back-stabbings seem much more about psychology than politics, and there's a lot of male pride and pain in there.
As we approach a key election for this country, and navigate our way through the darkly-spun webs that entangle it, it seems apposite to look back on an episode in Portsmouth that I personally think was one of the most extraordinary floor-crossings that I can recall - and, for the receiving party, possibly one of the most (predictably) de-stabilising.
When I joined Portsmouth City Council as a Lib Dem councillor in 2002, the fairly obvious feud between Cllr Phil Shaddock (Lib Dem Group Leader) and Cllr Lee Hunt (a Southsea Conservative councillor) was, it seemed, already well under way, characterised by claims of aggression and dirty dealings with occasional bursts of the surreal. The punchline of the joke - that Lee Hunt one day popped across and joined the Liberal Democrats and shortly thereafter the Liberal Democrat Cabinet - seems even more tragi-comic when one considers the background to his previous dealings with Phil Shaddock and the Lib Dem Group.
From the start, in May 2002, things were ... interesting. I joined a Council that had just adopted a system of local government by Leader and Cabinet, and the hung council - following a Lib Dem surge after a campaign assisted by Gerald Vernon-Jackson from 'up yonder' - had led to the formation of a 'rainbow coalition' with the three main parties putting up three Cabinet Members each under the Conservative leadership of Frank Worley. The other Members of the all-male Cabinet were Mike Park and Alistair Thompson (Con); Leo Madden, Jason Fazackarley and John McIntyre (Lab); and Phil Shaddock, Mike Hancock and Alex Bentley (Lib Dem). Only Leo Madden, the great survivor, is still on the Council (as a Lib Dem).
That first Cabinet could have been collegiate, but far from rainbows we got rows. The nine personalities involved created something of a maelstrom, and even those not on the Cabinet became embroiled in the ferment. I was given stern warnings about 'that Lee Hunt' from fellow new councillor, Jacqui Hancock. In fact she warned me about a whole slew of Southsea Conservatives: '... vile. They'll go through your bins.' Her husband Cllr Mike Hancock MP had a right paddy at me in a Group Meeting in 2003, during my first year as Cabinet Member for Education and Children, for not reacting to his liking to an email I'd received from Lee Hunt. Because it was from Lee Hunt. Not just any old Tory, but that Lee Hunt. Ok, ok, I get it - you don't like Lee Hunt.
'So why the antipathy between you all?' I asked Phil Shaddock a few times. It's often hard to get a straight answer out of Phil that bears any resemblance to clarity, but the gist of it appeared to be, 'It's because of Mike, see', and 'It's the parish council'. Ah yes, the bloody parish council - Southsea Town Council to give it its full, extinct title - which Mike Hancock had once supported and then changed his mind about. Dominated at one point by Southsea Conservatives, the Town Council caused huge disagreements among the Portsmouth Conservatives and the Portsmouth Liberal Democrats alike. Its budget, policies, operational running costs and personnel were all subjects of bitter disputes which spilled over into political leafleting campaigns, Full Council Meeting debates, and complaints to the Standards Board for England (which adjudicated at that time on allegations made about serving councillors). At that time, as a new councillor dumped in the deep end of responsibilities by my Group, the whole bewildering Town Council saga seemed an irritating waste of time and energy, and it also appeared to be the case for the many of the councillors serving non-Southsea wards. The seemingly endless rows about and between the personalities involved were thought by many - Lib Dems, Conservatives and Labour alike - to be diverting attention away from pressing issues in the more deprived areas of the city, including in the north of Portsmouth. In effect, it appeared, the Town Council had become too heavily politicised by both sides to be able to function effectively as the parish council it was supposed to be.
The back-drop to this was the old enmities and a council culture of complaints and complaining, and Phil Shaddock and Lee Hunt were no strangers to this. There's plenty in the public domain about the antagonistic relationship between Phil Shaddock and Lee Hunt. In fact you only have to Google both their names together to see them enmeshed forever in cyberspace, bound together for eternity by the crawling tentacles of searchbots, their story one of high emotion interspersed with bizarre action sequences - and, of course, the Standards Board for England.
At the time when The Portsmouth News was a proper local newspaper, with a full-time political correspondent post (filled by journalists like David Maddox, now Deputy Political editor at the Daily Express, and Alex Forsythe, who joined the BBC) as well as a full-time Education Correspondent (Cathy Caws), the involvement of councillors with the Standards Board and their complaints and counter-complaints about each other provided fat reams of great copy. Even when I hadn't made a complaint, the thought that I might be about to do so became a 'story'. It must have looked ludicrous to the public, as indeed it was. I was Chair of the local Standards Committee and the Lib Dem Group Secretary, so I got roped into this sorry mess more often than I would have liked, and was amazed at the idiotic tit-for-tat both in and out of the Council Chamber.
Phil's first run-in with Lee Hunt during my time on the Council took place in the Council Chamber just five months after I was elected, when Phil swore at him. It was an extraordinary incident, in full public view. The News reported it thus:
Phil was eventually found guilty by the Standards Board for England of bringing the Council into disrepute. While the exact words he had used were contested - this was before the routine recording of council meetings - the Standards Board accepted that he had at least told Lee Hunt to 'fuck off' during a debate about Mike Hancock's conduct and position as the Cabinet Member for Planning & Regeneration. And Phil was lucky - owing to a piece of parliamentary inefficiency in the local government department in London, the maximum sanction he could receive was a slap on the wrist, and this, to his apparent amusement, is what he got.
But this was no short-lived storm in a tea-cup. Lee Hunt had also complained to the City Solicitor of a systematic pattern of bullying - again reported in The News - and the former police officer had spoken eloquently of his fears:
This was followed by further allegations in December 2005, of a much more serious nature, of 'threats to kill':
As a consequence of these allegations, Phil Shaddock attended Central Police Station with his solicitor where was arrested and agreed to be questioned. A letter was sent some days later advising that the police would be taking No Further Action.
Given that Phil could have ended up in jail over these allegations, I asked him when writing this piece if he harboured any ill feelings towards Lee Hunt over what happened. His response was typical Phil, which does not preclude its being extraordinary. 'We're all mates now.' What about the incident? 'Trivial. blown out of all proportion, Waste of police time.' And your relationship these days with Lee Hunt? Phil shrugged. 'It's friendly. The past is a foreign country and all that.' When I pointed out he'd got the quote wrong, he laughed, a genuine and somehow boyish laugh, infectious and heart-warming, and I remembered why Phil was (and is) so popular with the residents he once served.
Phil's time on the Council came to an ignominious end in 2007, when he was disqualified from holding office for three months. (GVJ had already taken over as Leader.) This followed on from a previous incident of shouting at a council officer, for which Phil had apologised and received an instruction to attend anger management classes. This time, however, the Standards Board had been given its teeth, and Phil felt the painful bite of this unelected body and had to relinquish his elected position. He had been accompanied to both hearings by Mike Hancock his friend, and I was in the invidious position of giving evidence (effectively 'against' Phil) at the first hearing.
An interesting side note about that first hearing is this short tale. A very senior officer asked me afterwards why I hadn't 'stopped him' lambasting the council officer when it was happening. This question revealed a lot about the culture pervading the Council at that time. Why should it have been the women councillors' responsibility to police the men's behaviour? Fuck that. And anyway, Phil was bigger than me, stronger than me, and he'd lost his temper. What was I supposed to do - put him in a choke-hold with my special zombie-apocalypse-preparation skills? Fuck's sake. Or maybe, just maybe, the trained male security guard who was standing about ten feet away could have intervened? Just a thought. It still pisses me off that I accrued some of the blame for that episode.
Anyway, it was curtains for Phil and he never stood again for election for reasons best known to the Portsmouth Lib Dems. A by-election was called in Fratton, and the Conservatives thought they sensed an opportunity in my ward. This was a bit odd I thought - Fratton was a Hancockian Lib Dem stronghold. Where was this confidence coming from? We, the Lib Dems, were putting up local candidate David Fuller, and David told me nervously that Lee Hunt and the Tories were talking openly of having 'two thousand' pledges. Really? How was that happening?
One evening during the by-election campaign I took a phone call from a resident who lived near Fratton Station. Some 'little old ladies' - her words - had knocked on her door and told her she really ought to stop voting Lib Dem, because 'that Phil Shaddock, he's such a thug'. (She was very adamant about their use of the word 'thug'.) What did you do? I asked. 'Well, I told them I'd vote for them to get them off my doorstep. But I like Phil, he's always been good to us. So I will voting Lib Dem.' From her description, we were kind of able to work out who the women were, particularly as other reports were coming in from Fratton residents; and David Fuller won by a mile, with Phil's support.
Lee Hunt's apparent antipathy towards the Lib Dems and especially Mike Hancock was a continual presence, it seemed. At the December Council Meeting, for example, Lee Hunt repeatedly questioned Mike Hancock's absence:
These were volatile years. The Lib Dems for a while ran the council as a minority administration. GVJ enlisted the backing of two councillors, Leo Madden and Jason Fazackarley, who had left the Labour Party during a disciplinary row. They were offered positions as Cabinet Members; and Leo also became Deputy Leader of the Council - not bad for the Leader of the Group of just two councillors. Initially after leaving Labour they had become Independents, and they then fully crossed the floor to the Lib Dems in early 2009. Their joining the Group wasn't such a great shock as obviously the Lib Dem Group had had time to assimilate them as Independent Members.
What was a shock, to me at least, was to be told to welcome our old adversary Lee Hunt into the Group with open arms, after a falling out between him and some of his Conservative colleagues. It wasn't a shock though to the local party executive who apparently approved the decision, according to comments on Liberal Democrat Voice - in fact GVJ was praised for being 'conciliatory'. Others though warned of the potential fall-out.
Lee Hunt cited two reasons that have appeared in the media including the Liberal Democrat Voice website for crossing the floor: (1) He couldn't support Flick Drummond as she wasn't local (erm ... GVJ, anybody?); and, (2) he was now set against Southsea Town Council.
He also brought Cllr Margaret Adair over with him; and thus the Lib Dems at a stroke finally had an outright majority, and shortly thereafter Lee Hunt was made a Cabinet Member. He cut quite a tired-looking and unhappy figure at times, I thought, but apparently he wanted the job.
But no deals were done! announced GVJ. No deals.
The composition and culture of the Cabinet changed post-2009, and, to my mind, not for the better. I think it became more male-dominated again in every way, and never recovered its liberal direction. To put it in its raw form, by 2007-08 and into 2008-09, the Lib Dem Group had achieved a Cabinet where 33% of Members were women. In the municipal year 2009-10, the Year of the Floor Crossings, this fell to 20%; and by the time I resigned from the Hancock saga in 2014, I was the only woman on the Cabinet - which equates to a figure of just 11%.
As GVJ has claimed on record that 'no deals were done', he doesn't even have the excuse of political expediency to explain this crap record of female representation on the city's executive board. Maybe he just wasn't that fussed about women being on the Cabinet. I certainly don't remember them being actively and positively encouraged to be on Cabinet. Instead we had stupid comments allowed to be made at Group Meetings - It's best man for the job, innit?' - and far too many pre-agreements before the shows of hands. I'm sure that Paula Riches, Terry (Theresa) Hall, Lynne Stagg and Cheryl Buggy achieved many fantastic things as Lord Mayors, but I'd have much, much rather preferred them to have been allowed to join, or allowed to stay on, or encouraged to stay on, the Lib Dem Cabinet. By the end, I was tired of being served up Alpha-male Soup, listening to fists banging and men's loud, personal and important phone calls in the middle of meetings. It seemed that it was only after I walked away in a glare of publicity that the penny finally dropped, and Terry Hall and former Tory Sandra Stockdale were persuaded temporarily to take over the role I had previously filled. (An intriguing and rather sad postscript to these appointments is that a rather forlorn Sandra Stockdale then crossed the floor back to the Conservatives the following year, having been de-selected by the Lib Dems; and Terry Hall chose not to run again for election.)
And then the whole Hancock resignation was such a bloody farce. The vote at the Group meeting, where he was at first permitted to stay on the Cabinet, despite the appearance of the Pascoe Report, was most irregular - and the details were leaked by one of the Members of the Group who had voted to kick him off. That Group Member wanted to identify the people who voted for Hancock, and so that person provided The News with a list. The News published that list and Lee Hunt is on it. Had the men who were formerly enemies finally found something to bond over? Hunt's assimilation seemed complete.
As I write this, I can see via Twitter and by simply looking out of my window in Fratton that both Lee Hunt and Phil Shaddock have been out delivering leaflets for the 2017 Lib Dem General Election campaign. Phil says that they're friends. It's amazing to think that not that many years ago Lee Hunt publicly made allegations about Phil Shaddock that led to his arrest and could have led to his imprisonment; and I do find it hard not to wonder about the psychological processes and the cognitive dissonance that allows such a detente to happen. Politics, eh? It's a funny old game.
Or is it, in the end, all about people's personal psychology - who knows?
Sources: Interview with Phil Shaddock, 19th May 2017; The Portsmouth News, Johnston Press; Liberal Democrat Voice including Mark Pack blog.