It was the distraction the nation didn’t know it needed: a poor-quality recording of an online meeting of a Cheshire parish council, called by two councillors “following the refusal of the council chairman to call such a meeting”.
Normally such a congress would struggle to raise a quorum, let alone an audience of millions. Yet against all odds, December’s Extraordinary Meeting of Handforth parish council’s planning and environment committee went viral on Thursday night.
It made a star of its doughty clerk, Jackie Weaver, who dealt with argumentative male councillors by kicking them off the Zoom call and barely blinking when being yelled at to “read the standing orders! Read them and understand them!”
She kept her cool when one man dismissed her by saying “you don’t know what you’re talking about” and ignored the gales of laughter from the remaining men when a female councillor asked them to show Weaver some respect (she soon got her revenge with another remorseless click of her eviction button).
By Friday morning, Vice had produced a 3,300-word analysis of the fateful meeting, T-shirts were available saying “You have no authority here Jackie Weaver” – the words of the council chairman, Barry Tolver, before she booted him off – and Weaver was holding court on BBC’s Woman’s Hour.
Weaver – employed not by Handforth parish council but the Cheshire Association of Local Councils, apparently parachuted in to run the meeting amid accusations of poor behaviour by councillors – told the BBC she felt proud to have stayed calm in the face of what she described as bullying.
“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,’” she said.
“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 dramatic. “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 the PA news agency that Weaver “had no status to speak other than when invited”, adding: “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.”
Quite how this niche meeting ended up being dissected across all mainstream TV channels and radio stations is largely down to the determination of a few Handforth residents who were appalled at the conduct on show.
For the past two weeks, Anika York had been trying and failing to get media interest in the affair, wanting a wider audience for what she calls a “communication breakdown” between Handforth parish council members, which she thinks have been getting in the way of helping the community.
“When personality clashes and belligerence get in the way of the council doing positive things for a community, their approach has to be questioned,” she said.
Perhaps because the original recording was one hour and 20 minutes long, it was only when comedian Steven Morgan edited it down to 18 minutes and put a terrible bit of Clip Art on the front that it began to go viral.
Morgan’s montage caught the attention of Shaan Ali, a young Labour member who says he likes to look for videos of council meetings in idle moment: “All of these videos are usually absolutely hilarious – old councillors struggling to use Zoom and amazing arguments.”
He shared it with a group chat of other political activists, and one, Janine Mason, cut it to 30 seconds: perfect for a 2021 attention span. Add to that a boring Thursday night with all the pubs shut, and a viral sensation was born.
The TV presenter and novelist Richard Osman tweeted: “Am busily writing Jackie Weaver into the next Thursday Murder Club novel,” while the Radio 1 Breakfast presenter Greg James described it as “The best British comedy in decades.”
It was left to women in public life to point out the obvious: “Beyond the humour, the behaviour Jackie Weaver experienced is common place in all levels of politics,” said the Labour MP Rosena Allin-Khan. “Good on her for sticking to it, but people doing their best in local politics, especially women, shouldn’t have to put up with that.”