In a short piece in the Portsmouth News published last Saturday, its political reporter Ben Fishwick wrote about a recent conversation that he had had with former MP Mike Hancock, including some overbatim details of that conversation.
Hancock is reported to have said:
‘I’ve phoned him, I wish him all the very best.' ‘I wish him luck and I hope it goes well for him and working with Liberal Democrats and Labour.' 'I hope they work well together.'
What can we potentially gather from this reported conversation? And who is Hancock really talking to? I've come up with 8 things.
1. I think it's safe to assume the Fishwick-Hancock conversation actually took place. Ben Fishwick is a journalist with a good reputation, so I doubt very much that he has fabricated any part of this. He'll have an accurate contemporaneous note or a recording.
Whether the Hancock-GVJ conversation took place is another matter - but I've seen no evidence of GVJ denying it.
2. The conversation was clearly 'on the record', and Hancock, an old hand when dealing with the media, will have known this. I've spoken to reporters from the News and other newspapers and media organisations many times, and it's always been established up front if a conversation is to be regarded as 'off the record'.
3. Hancock's words to Ben Fishwick - as reported - are extremely interesting. He switches in the same sentence from saying that 'I phoned' him (past tense) to 'I wish' (present tense). So whilst the impression that Hancock gives (as reported) is that he phoned GVJ in order to wish him well, when you really focus on the words, that's not necessarily what he literally said.
4. So the conversation between Hancock and GVJ could have had an entirely different content. After all, we were supposed to believe Gerald when he said he was now 'sorry' about his role in what happened regarding Hancock's victim, Annie. What was it he said in a letter to her in July 2014? Oh yes:
'I accepted Mike Hancock's assurances, and in this I was wrong.'
Whether he meant what he wrote or not, it certainly seems to have pissed off Hancock. By April 2015 the fall-out between the pair was apparently so serious it was 'the talk of Westminster'. This wasn't simply a local spat. Iain Duncan Smith - then Secretary of State for Work & Pensions - described the two of them as having once been 'close' but now going at it 'like rats in a sack', throwing the Lib Dems into 'chaos'.
5. So it's probably a safe bet to assume that Hancock was 'mischief-making' and positioning Gerald as a hapless foil. In one brief, wily set of remarks to the News reporter, Hancock brought into play some very awkward associations which GVJ was and is probably supposed to find difficult and uncomfortable - for example, the association between GVJ and Labour, and of course the association between GVJ and Hancock himself.
Maybe - just maybe - Hancock knows that Gerald's 'surprise' at Labour's support for his Leadership of the Council wasn't such a big surprise after all. Anything's possible.
6. Hancock, in reminding GVJ about his reliance on Labour in order to keep his position on the council, and to get anything voted through, is inevitably touching on the Lib Dems election failures. It won't have escaped either of them that this reliance arose because the Lib Dems failed to hold / win enough seats - including Hancock's old ward Fratton.
Back in the day, a Lib Dem from Hancock's office told me, 'You could dress up a monkey in orange and it would win in Fratton'. Well, not any more. They had a perfectly good candidate this year, but the election strategy let him down. It seemed obvious to me that the Lib Dem candidate was always going to have a tough fight against the local, well-known Labour candidate who also had a strong 'likeability factor' - but resources (yet again) were pulled away from Fratton and into wards that someone had deemed to be more important and deserving. Thus, Milton (GVJ's own ward) was won for the Lib Dems by 392 votes, but Fratton was lost by 72. Priorities all over the place, as ever.
7. Hancock's remark about working with Labour seems to me also to hint at the comments circulating on social media along the lines of, 'Vote Labour, Get Gerald' - and could therefore serve as a message to GVJ that Fratton is up for grabs again next year. The Lib Dem candidate, if he chooses to defend his seat, will be Dave Ashmore. He won with just 26% of the vote last time, and is unlikely to benefit from the collapse of the previous UKIP vote - that'll go mostly to the Tories or Labour. Moreover, it's tough to campaign on the usual 'rubbish and fly-tipping' agenda when you're now actually in charge of the Council and you are in fact the Cabinet Member responsible for those very things; and which you can do very little about, given the state of Council funding and the fact that the Colas PFI contract makes Carillion look good.
8. The possibility remains that Hancock genuinely rang GVJ to wish him well, and that those wishes were graciously accepted - which would suggest that either the rift never really existed in the first place (hard to believe ... but nothing would surprise me), or the rift has been healed.
If the rift has been healed, either out of desire or necessity, and Hancock isn't averse to phoning GVJ, and GVJ isn't averse to answering the call? Well, that brings a whole new heap of shit for the Liberal Democrat Party - especially the 'Let's All Move On' brigade on Facebook - to shovel out of the Augean Stables. And they're desperately short of a Hercules.
Acknowledgments: Miles O'Leary (now of the Plymouth Herald) and Ben Fishwick of the Portsmouth News; the Portsmouth News; and for the beautiful image of Aesop's Fable above, Michael Morgenstern for The Economist, article 2013; Halloween film image WikiMedia Commons (dir: John Carpenter).