The online session began with an unseen councillor mumbling “f*** off” under their breath. There were odd references to Britney Spears and “laughing hyenas”. There were accusations of power grabs and unexplained interruptions by friends. It had it all.
Jackie Weaver – one of the drama’s leading protagonists – was trending on Thursday night, with the Twitterati demanding to know what happened next in her chaotic war of words with the chairman.
So what exactly was behind the row? A left-versus-right clash of ideologies, perhaps? A big budgetary scandal? Concern over under-pressure local services?
No. None of those things. The screaming stemmed from a bitter battle over procedural control of the meetings – and for control of the council itself. The Independent watched the full 1 hour and 20 minutes version of the meeting to get to the bottom of the feud.
Two camps formed in Handforth over the bureaucratic dispute – one around Ms Weaver and the other around chairman Brian Tolver. Mr Tolver refused to even recognise the legitimacy of the 10 December Zoom meeting, called by two other councillors.
He then fumed against Ms Weaver – who was acting as clerk in the absence of Handforth’s regular clerk – and claimed she had no right to run the meeting or dictate “points of order” or decide who gets removed for being rude.
When Ms Weaver tried to explain she did indeed have that power, Mr Tolver raged: “Will you stop talking … will you please listen? It is not for the clerk to decide a point of order – you have no authority here Jackie Weaver!”
One of Mr Tolver’s allies, councillor Aled Brewerton, was stunned. “She’s kicked him out! She’s kicked him out!”
Mr Brewerton, as vice-chair of the parish council, thought he should then take charge of the meeting and shouted at Ms Weaver: “I take charge! Read the standing orders – read them and understand them!”
She kicked him out into the waiting room. Ms Weaver also kicked out another angry member of the Tolver camp, councillor Barry Burkhill, for telling her “you don’t know what you’re talking about”.
Ms Weaver and a small cadre of supportive colleagues were then free to complain about the “disgraceful” chairman, suggesting he was trying to assume too much power. They moaned about the fact Mr Tolver had been calling himself the “clerk” – both in emails and in his own Zoom meeting name: “Handforth PC Clerk”.
Ms Weaver explained: “The chairman simply declared himself clerk … there is no way of stopping him from calling himself clerk,” before joking: “Please refer to me as Britney Spears from now on.”
One councillor complained about an unnamed acquaintance who had been sitting next to Mr Brewerton, briefly seen cackling maniacally after the row about standing orders. “Someone in the Brewerton household sat there like a laughing hyena!”
To add to the absurdity, proceedings were interrupted when a councillor named Julie got a call from a friend. “Oh hiya – I’m just in a meeting at the moment – can I call back when it finishes? Alright, bye!”
It was left to councillor David Pincombe to get serious, arguing the absence of a permanent clerk had created a damaging power vacuum. He suggested the matter could be taken all the way to Cheshire East Council. “The parish council has been extremely dysfunctional … I believe it’s time for Cheshire East to step in and do something.”
Councillor Roger Small did attempt to discuss pubs in Handforth, and their vital importance as community meeting places. But his colleagues continued to get pulled back into procedural squabbles.
Sifting through previous parish council meetings, available on YouTube, it’s clear this is not the first one which has turned acrimonious. They are full of petty arguments about points of order and whether items had been agreed for the agenda – with the battle of ideas entirely absent.
Ms Weaver, the new superstar of local government, was interviewed on BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour on Thursday – and said she’d been overwhelmed by “lovely, positive” messages of support.
“Clearly there’s amusement in the way somebody has just lost it,” she said of the viral row. “I’m afraid that when you are being bullied then when you see the other person has lost it there’s a sense of, ‘I did okay there because I held it together’.”
Asked if she had advice for Zoom meetings, she said “don’t wear pyjamas” and stay “focused on what you’re trying to achieve”.