Insults and expletives turn parish council Zoom meeting into internet sensation

Swearing, hysterics and a heroically stoic clerk transform Handforth meeting into absurdist drama

A parish council meeting which descended into chaos – with councillors trading insults and ultimately getting booted off the Zoom call – has become an internet sensation and a metaphor for the UK’s woes under lockdown.

A video of the Handforth council meeting in Cheshire showed it starting badly when one unseen councillor apparently muttered swear words under his breath as the clerk tried to bring the session to order.

Things did not improve. The meeting quickly degenerated into rancour with councillors in the village near Wilmslow trading insults and ultimately being booted off the Zoom call by the clerk.

Footage of the extraordinary exchanges has been shared thousands of times on Twitter. The name of the heroically stoic clerk, Jackie Weaver, who was apparently parachuted in to run the meeting amid accusations of poor behaviour by councillors, became a Twitter trend on Thursday evening and spawned several memes.

During the meeting, which took place on 10 December, the chair, Brian Tolver, was removed after refusing to recognise the legitimacy of the meeting.

In the recording, he told Weaver, from the Cheshire Association of Local Councils, to stop talking, adding: “You have no authority here.” In response, Weaver removed Tolver from the Zoom call and placed him in a virtual waiting room.

Tolver at the meeting of Handforth parish council
Tolver at the meeting of Handforth parish council, which has become an unlikely internet sensation after it descended into chaos Photograph: Handforth parish council/PA

After Tolver’s eviction, the vice-chair, Aled Brewerton, joined by another man, proceeded to shout at Weaver to “read the standing orders”.

When their fellow councillor Susan Moore called for civility, the meeting erupted into semi-hysterical laughter and two further councillors, Brewerton and Barry Burkill, were removed.

The absurd scenes continued with confusion over Tolver’s Zoom username, in which he had labelled himself the “Handforth PC clerk”.

Weaver said: “The chairman simply declared himself ‘clerk’ and notified everybody of the case. There is no way of stopping him from calling himself clerk. Please refer to me as Britney Spears from now on.”

Those remaining voted to not allow the three men back into the meeting, with one councillor, Cynthia Samson, likening one to a “laughing hyena”.

The clips of the meeting were a hit with Twitter users, with more than 5,000 retweets and 32,000 likes. The TV presenter Richard Osman tweeted: “Am busily writing Jackie Weaver into the next Thursday Murder Club novel.”

Interviewed on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, Weaver seemed to be enjoying her newfound fame, after her name was emblazoned on T-shirts saying “YOU HAVE NO AUTHORITY HERE JACKIE WEAVER”.

She said she had been amused by some of the coverage of the meeting. “Clearly there’s amusement in the way somebody has just lost it,” she said. “It’s harsh to take some pleasure from that, but I’m afraid when you are being bullied, if you can see that the other person has lost it then there is the sense of ‘I did OK there because I managed to hold it together.’

“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 and do something about that.”

She said at least 99.99% of parish council meetings were not that exciting. “They are often less exciting than we might hope,” she said.

But Tolver was unrepentant, saying he had a “reason to be angry”. He told PA news agency that Weaver “had no status to speak other than when invited”.

He added: “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 of the voters of the village from being represented – it was an appalling attack on their democratic rights.”

Normally sedate and well-mannered bodies, parish councils are the lowest tier of local government in England. They have few powers but can play an important role in providing representation and consultation with district and county councils in matters such as planning, environment and recreation.

The extraordinary outbursts followed a series of complaints about the conduct of some councillors in the village and allegations of unlawful decisions which have resulted in expenditure of public funds, according to a notice posted on the council’s website by David Brown, director of governance and compliance at Cheshire district council.

“As monitoring officer in Cheshire East I have received a multiplicity of complaints and referrals,” it says. “These range from multiple complaints about councillors’ behaviour; to fundamental issues of governance and member/officer engagement. The most recent referrals relate to suggestions that some members of Handforth parish council have purported to take decisions that are plainly unlawful, and these decisions have resulted in expenditure of public funds.”

At the end of the meeting, the councillors debated whether a recording of their discussions should be released. One councillor presciently replied: “I think if this goes viral … it’s going to start a war of words.”

PA Media contributed to this report.


Martin Farrer and Helen Pidd

The GuardianTramp

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