Jackie Weaver for prime minister?

I first became aware of Jackie Weaver when Jim Pickard, Chief Political Correspondent at the Financial Times, put up a poll asking the public, “Who do you want as PM [prime minister]?”. The four choices were Keir Starmer, Boris Johnson, Ed Davey and Jackie Weaver. Keir Starmer was winning comfortably, but Jackie Weaver was in second place, polling double the combined totals of Boris Johnson and Ed Davey. What fresh hell was this? Why on earth would Brits want an Aussie actress, famed for playing tough, gritty roles, as their prime minister? Of course, I’d made the mistake of assuming Jackie Weaver and Jacki Weaver were one and the same. My bad. That little ‘e’ on the end of ‘Jackie’ makes a world of difference.

Later, I noticed ‘Jackie Weaver’ was trending on Twitter. Clearly, there was something going on, and I had missed it. That’s when I discovered the viral video of a meeting of the Environment Committee of the Handforth Parish Council, in the constituency of Tatton (MP: Esther McVey), Cheshire. What a gem! It was like a reality TV version of an episode of ITV’s Midsomer Murders, without the body count — at least not physical bodies. Metaphorically, it was a different matter. Jackie Weaver takes no prisoners…

“When do we plan to start?” the council’s chair, Brian Tolver, asks at the start of the video. The other participants seem keen for him to officially open proceedings, but Tolver has a few issues to settle first. Above all, he wants an assurance he won’t be thrown out of the meeting like last time, to know in what capacity Jackie Weaver is acting, and to lay down the law.

“Are you here as the proper officer?” he demands.

Other attendees cut in, trying to raise points of order, before the meeting is even technically underway. One is even heard to take a phone call. Ms Weaver constantly interrupts Tolver and talks over him, leading to a bad-tempered outburst:

“It’s only the chairman who can remove people from a meeting. You have no authority here, Jackie Weaver, no authority at all.”

ZAP! Jackie Weaver instantly proves him wrong by removing him from the meeting, to the astonishment of everyone else. She’ll brook no disruption in any meeting she is clerking for. Dear, dear. ‘Cancel culture’ has trickled down to the lowest level of British democracy, the humble parish council. Is any of us safe any more?

Ms Weaver then provokes more fireworks by inviting the remaining participants to elect another chair.

“No, they can’t,” comes an angry voice from one of the two councillors sharing ‘Alled’s iPad’, “because the vice-chair’s here. I take charge. Read the standing orders. READ THEM AND UNDERSTAND THEM.”

“Appalling behaviour,” replies Jackie Weaver. “A copy of this will be sent to the monitoring office.” And it carries on like that for 80 minutes…

One of the stars of ‘legal’ Twitter, David Allen Green, dedicated a blog-post to the incident. He concluded that while Jackie Weaver was not the proper officer and did not have the authority that she herself did not claim, she had behaved entirely properly in excluding disruptive members who were trying to frustrate a legally convened meeting. Digging through the minutes of past meetings, Green found that the chair was rather lackadaisical, and councillors were annoyed by the lack of meetings. That was why Jackie Weaver was in attendance: she had been sent by the Cheshire Association of Local Authorities, after a letter of complaint from two of the Handforth councillors. She had every right to interrupt Tolver and attempt to get the meeting on track.

Another point Green made was that the minutes of the meeting did not accurately reflect what had gone on, and that video is a boon for the transparency of council meetings. Which brings us back to how it came to the attention of such a wide audience in the first place…

The clip was discovered by 17-year-old A level politics student, Shaan Ali from East London, who likes to listen to local politics meetings in his spare time. He sent to it a friend, Janine Mason, who posted a 30-second snippet on Twitter. That clip has now been viewed over five million times. Janine’s tweet was liked over 119 thousand times, leading Shaan to tweet:

“AHAHA, my pastime of watching random council meetings has made one of my friends famous, and I’ve begun the downfall of Handsforth Parish Council! Here we gooooooo….”

He may not have harvested the clicks, but Shaan has been interviewed by the BBC, his favourite radio show and local press in the meantime.

Meanwhile an 18-minute “best of” edit of the Handforth Parish Council meeting by comedian Steve Morgan (available on YouTube) has been watched 2.5 million times. This chaotic Zoom meeting has sparked an outpouring of creativity, from a “which member of the Handforth Parish Council are you?” quiz, to T-shirts and plasticene models, to spoofs, songs, and memes. Curiously, many of the latter seem to be based on Lord of the Rings, either poor King Theoden still under the grip of Wormtongue, or Gandalf fighting the Balrog in the mines of Moria and yelling, “You shall not pass!”

This spoof trailer for the Handforth Parish Council political thriller by @spoofed_uk is well worth wasting a minute of your time on:

Then spend another minute listening to this clever lad, Michael Fry, who has set “Read the standing orders — read them and understand them” to music in the style of an indie band:

Too busy with Zoom meetings myself to get creative, I’ve been secretly hoping somebody would do a mash-up of the viral video of the aerobics instructor in Myanmar carrying on regardless as military vehicles thunder towards the parliament to launch a coup with the Handforth Parish Council Video. Writer James Felton came close:

The British public haven’t had this much fun since Boaty McBoatface. Remember that? Ah, such innocent times. In March 2016 the British public voted to name a new polar ocean-going scientific research vessel ‘Boaty McBoatface’. A certain junior science minister — one Jo Johnson, brother of the now prime minister — overruled it, saying the ship needed a more suitable name. The ship was eventually named after national treasure Sir David Attenborough, but in recognition of ‘the will of the people’, a yellow submarine on board the ship was named Boaty McBoatface.

Then, as now, the nutty British sense of humour went viral on a global scale. The Washington Post has reported on the Handforth Parish Council meeting, as has CNN. But what of the woman herself, Jackie Weaver? She has spent a day doing interviews: national news programmes, including BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Sky and Channel 5, and even entertainment shows like Channel 4’s The Last Leg. My personal favourite was Women’s Hour on BBC Radio 4.

In all the interviews, Jackie Weaver comes across as calm, poised and able to see the funny side of things. She reminds us that 99.99 per cent of council meetings are not that exciting, and can be really rather boring, but she’s using her fifteen minutes of fame to encourage people to get involved in local politics and to draw attention to some serious issues.

“There is an element of bullying and bad behaviour in local councils, and a lot of us are working very hard — and that includes central government — to try to do something about that. Because, we’re passionate about the fact that local government is the mechanism by which people can really engage with their community.”

She admitted to ITV News that she was glad she was sitting down at the time, because although she sounded very much in control, her knees were shaking. According to Everyday Sexism, 96 per cent of councils are male-dominated and only 35 per cent of councillors are women. Fellow West Country Bylines writer Anna Andrews, has written an article, The Clerk’s Tale, explaining the work of parish councils and how this episode could bring parish councils into disrepute, and undermine the good work they do.

Tooting MP and Shadow Mental Health Minister Dr Rosena Allin-Khan spoke for many when she recognised the humour in the video, but echoed Ms Weaver’s points on bullying:

Given all the “my child has declared she wants to be Jackie Weaver when she grows up” tweets I’ve seen, I am more optimistic than Dr Allin-Khan. The video is Internet gold, and has appealed across all age ranges. Former MP and Cabinet Minister David Gauke was quote-tweeted by BBC Newsnight’s Emily Maitlis:

Let’s face it: it is unlikely that Jackie Weaver will ever be prime minister, but some youngster who has watched the video, and been inspired by her, may be elected to that office one day.