There was shouting, lewd language and more boisterous behaviour than a rugby club on a Saturday night: a scene of such squabbling it was like the Bash Street Kids rather than a meeting of upstanding members of a local community.
We may think of parish councillors as benign folk concerned with little more than the sprawling wisteria on the village church. Worlds apart, in other words, from the vicious bear pit of Westminster politics.
How wrong we were.
This week, that gentle image of parochial life was spectacularly torpedoed after a video emerged of an extraordinary — in every sense — meeting held by Handforth Parish Council in Cheshire, showing a seemingly mild-mannered group of parishioners behaving like power-crazed characters from
A spoof movie poster was drawn up and shared on social media as the parish council meeting became an internet sensation
The meeting, which took place on a Zoom video-conference back in December, was posted online on Thursday by a Labour activist and swiftly morphed into a global sensation, clocking up millions of views.
Within hours, the internet was ablaze with comments from users enthralled by the melee in the affluent town north of Cheshire’s famous ‘Golden Triangle’, popular with Premier League footballers.
The fracas attracted the attention of former Chancellor George Osborne, who said: ‘I don’t remember Handforth parish council being quite so lively when I was the MP there.’
Olympic gold medallist cyclist Sir Chris Hoy captured the unexpected entertainment value by remarking: ‘Who needs Netflix?’
So what exactly was happening? The row started several months ago between two warring camps within the parish council, with four on one side and three on the other.
‘If you disrupt this meeting, I will have to remove you!’ Jackie Weaver (pictured) said in the meeting
One councillor, Jean Thompson, was dismissed as she did not attend meetings for six months. This left the council split, with three councillors on each side: chairman Brian Tolver, Aled Brewerton and Barry Burkhill versus John Smith, Cynthia Samson and Susan Moore.
The latter three had asked Jackie — who has worked with Handforth Parish Council over the past year — to act as clerk in the meeting because the council’s formal clerk had been suspended by Mr Tolver. But the faction led by him evidently believed she had no right to be there.
In scenes reminiscent of a political thriller, Peter Moore, whose wife Susan is part of the faction opposing Mr Tolver, said: ‘The controlling group has become increasingly angry and aggressive. They do nothing.’
He added: ‘They tend to block things they do not put forward. Nothing is getting done. It has been like this for a while. This meeting was brought forward to try and get things moving.
‘They came to the meeting to disrupt it — the aggressive and bullying ones. They have turned it into a den of bullying.’
‘You have no authority here, Jackie Weaver, no authority John Smith at all,’ Brian Tolver (pictured) said in the clip
Meanwhile, Councillor Barry Burkhill’s wife Sue Bideford — the deputy mayoress of Cheshire East — said: ‘The meeting was illegal and should not have been allowed . . . What is behind it is a poisonous power grab.’
As for Mrs Weaver, who awoke yesterday to find herself an internet phenomenon, she told the Mail of her newfound celebrity: ‘If I had known I would have definitely gone to have my hair done. It’s scary and a bit unbelievable.’
To understand this richly comic — and uniquely British — farce, let us examine the key players.
At the centre of the drama were the aforementioned Mrs Weaver, a matronly Thora Hird look-a-like, and Brian Tolver, Handforth Parish council’s rheumy-eyed Chairman, whose mole-like disposition masked a thirst for authority on a par with Dad’s Army blowhard Captain Mainwaring. Providing additional drama were a motley cast of various councillors and members of the public.
Chief antagonist in the bubbling cauldron was Mr Tolver, who barked that the meeting had been called ‘illegally’. As proceedings began, he repeatedly ordered Weaver to ‘stop talking’. In tones that have since spawned a thousand internet memes, he croaked: ‘You have no authority here, Jackie Weaver! No authority at all!’
‘You don’t know what you’re talking about!’ Barry Burkhill (pictured) said in the video
Jackie was having none of it. With one press of her keyboard, she removed Mr Tolver from the meeting by dispatching him to the virtual ‘waiting room’, the internet equivalent of the naughty step.
After that — to anyone watching — hilarity ensued.
Realising what had happened to Mr Tolver, Aled Brewerton blew a gasket. ‘She’s kicked him out! She’s kicked him out!’ he yelled incredulously. Jackie suggested that with Tolver now expelled, the remaining councillors select another chairman.
‘No!’ Brewerton screamed, his face bulging like Sir Alex Ferguson in the Old Trafford changing room. ‘They can’t, because I’m vice chairman so I take charge! Read the standing orders! Read them and UNDERSTAND THEM!’
Unnervingly, Mr Brewerton is a qualified lawyer.
Fellow councillor Susan Moore appealed for calm. She may as well have been talking to the wind. Hyena-like laughs were heard. Jackie Weaver’s keyboard finger had grown itchy again. Zoik! Suddenly Mr Brewerton and fellow councillor Barry Burkill were joining Mr Tolver in the virtual sin bin.
‘Read the standing orders! READ THEM AND UNDERSTAND THEM!’ Aled Brewerton (left) said during the meeting
Someone then pointed out Mr Tolver had changed his Zoom identification handle to ‘clerk’, a way of indicating he should be in charge.
Jackie sighed. ‘There is no way of stopping him from calling himself “clerk” ’, she announced, adding with an acid flourish: ‘Please refer to me as “Britney Spears” from now on.’
Pandemonium reigned. We heard swearing, jeering, whooping. Someone was heard to exclaim ‘f*** off’; a lavatory flushed and one councillor took a phone call. There we more pile-ups than a Daytona rally. It was glorious stuff.
In the midst of it all, poor Jackie looked like she was home-schooling the worst class troublemakers. Toward the end, one councillor remarked: ‘If this goes viral . . . it’s going to start a war of words.’
They weren’t wrong about that.
As the country was digesting the spectacle yesterday, Jackie Weaver was hailed as an unlikely political heroine. An unflinching stoic standing up to a bunch of cherry-nosed chauvinistic dinosaurs.
Drama: The green acres around Handforth. It was during a Handforth council meeting that tge heated exchange took place
Speaking to the Mail yesterday from her home in the village of Prees, Shropshire, she said: ‘I think a lot of people were moved to comment by seeing a woman taking on three men. It got quite personal. The main thing going through my mind was to be fair.
‘I tried to give the meeting time to settle down but it didn’t. My knees were shaking but I was determined to hold the meeting. But I have no regrets about the way I handled it.’
The name ‘Jackie Weaver’ was seemingly everywhere yesterday — she even popped up on the American news network CNN.
Meanwhile, debate raged online among parish-politics egg-heads as to who was in the right.
Mr Tolver remained in no-surrender mode yesterday: ‘I cannot think of any other council meeting anywhere that was taken over by an unqualified member of the public like this. Removing half the councillors from the meeting denied half the voters of the village from being represented.’
He was not alone in failing to see the funny side. Janet Taylor, 60, who has been attending these parish meetings for the past six years, said she felt ‘embarrassed to be a resident’ of Handforth, adding: ‘That’s the worst meeting I’ve ever been to.’
No doubt all parties will be making their trenchant views heard the next time the council meets — if they can stand to be in the same ‘Zoom room’, that is.
If it’s anything like the last time, they should be charging the public a hefty price for admission.
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