The Lib Dems issued this press release last night about Portsmouth South MP Mike Hancock:
“Following Mike Hancock’s receipt of legal papers in a High Court civil action, Nick Clegg has asked the Chief Whip to convene an urgent meeting under the disciplinary procedures of the parliamentary party between Nick Clegg, Simon Hughes, the Chief Whip and Mike Hancock.
Mike Hancock strenuously denies the accusations made in the civil action. We are not prejudging the outcome of the case, but given the seriousness of the allegations, Nick Clegg has instructed the Chief Whip to invoke the disciplinary procedures of the party.”
It’s a pretty weird statement, and state of affairs, for the Lib Dems to arrive at. It’s been clear for some time that Hancock would face a civil action over claims of sexual harrassment made by a constituent.
National media attention have concentrated on Hancock’s role as an MP, but he devotes most of his time to Portsmouth City Council. The local Lib Dem party has been the Hancock family’s own feudal system for 30 years. Hancock has a lamentably bad record of attendance and debate participation at Westminster. His defenders always refer to heart surgery he had last year but it is strange that while it supposedly still prevents him performing his duties as an MP, or attending disciplinary hearings at any level, it has had no effect on his ability to work as a councillor running the vital redevelopment portfolio. It is as a consequence of this dual role that the awkward questions for Nick Clegg and Gerald Vernon-Jackson continue to mount up over their handling of the affair.
Everyone knows that Hancock is a colourful figure, admitting himself to a string of extra-marital affairs over the course of his 40 years in politics. While his most famous dalliance with Katia Zatuliveter almost certainly did not have the “security” dimension some more excitable journalists hinted at, it is a reminder that Hancock has a long-standing business and lobbying interest in the murky world of post-Soviet politics. He has just recently sided with the dictatorial and barbarous regime in Azerbaijan against the democratic government of Armenia, for instance. Hancock’s attendance at Parliament has dwindled to the extent that this calendar year – long after he resumed full control of his affairs at council level – he has failed to vote 99 out of a possible 111 times. He put out a press release about what the Lib Dems were doing about the Queen’s Speech without actually participating in the debate himself. Mike Hancock is a part-time Member of Parliament.
At city council level, Hancock’s regeneration portfolio is in chaos; the Northern Quarter redevelopment of the city centre is running years behind schedule, has lost its two “anchor tenants”, and will now be half the size originally envisaged (and far smaller than similar schemes in competing city centres). Hancock bulldozed through a disastrous pedestrianisation of a main route in Portsmouth, managing to infuriate residents and traders alike. The city council routinely publishes masterplans for developing areas of the city that have little relationship to reality. If you look at this play-school artist’s impression, you have to wonder if the money spent on these schemes has been spent wisely.
Residents wonder how the council proposes to get any of these things done when their existing schemes are in such a mess and there are deserted building sites in key locations. That picture is repeated across the whole field of our Lib Dem council’s activity. The next local elections in the city aren’t until May 2014, but they are likely to be an annihiliation of the Lib Dem party at council level, whatever happens to Hancock as an MP.
So with that disastrous record in mind, of irresponsibility and incompetence, why has it taken so long for the Lib Dems to do anything about it? If Hancock had been an employee of Portsmouth City Council rather than a councillor, he would have been suspended long ago over the allegations against him. Revised DCLG guidelines mean that the city council can only suspend his portfolio responsibility pending investigation (which is ongoing), but Gerald Vernon-Jackson has refused to do even this. At national level, Nick Clegg has handled the Hancock case even more poorly than he did Rennard. The complainant’s lawyer first wrote to Clegg in March 2011, but nothing resulted. Either he should have commenced disciplinary proceedings when the allegations first came to light, or he should have waited until Hancock had his day in court. As with the Rennard case, in not acting early Clegg gives the impression of not caring about serious allegations. The chaos grows this morning, now that Hancock has put out a statement saying he will not attend the disciplinary meeting. He also admits that the clock is now ticking on his time in politics, saying “I will go at a time of my choosing or if the people decide to get rid of me.”
When I talk about a “Pompey Spring”, I don’t just mean getting rid of Mike Hancock. Lib Dem politics in Portsmouth are mired in sleaze – I won’t go now into the David Fuller case but have a read for yourself – and incompetence. The likely replacement for Mike Hancock as Lib Dem Westminster candidate is Gerald Vernon-Jackson, another arrogant career politician and hopeless leader of the city council (not to mention a former Rennard apparatchik). We need a clean sweep of these Lib Dems out of our politics, at Westminster and council level, and I am sure the people of Portsmouth can’t wait for a chance to deliver their verdict at the ballot box. I read a fair amount of nonsense in the national press about Hancock’s “popularity” here, or the electoral prospects at a by-election, and it will be fascinating to see how quickly the media gets a grip on the real situation in Portsmouth. #PompeySpring is coming.