Lib Dem MP Mike Hancock attacked on four fronts
The Liberal Democrats have tonight announced that their chief whip, Alistair Carmichael, is urgently investigating allegations of sexual harrassment against the MP for Portsmouth South, Mike Hancock, made by one of his female constituents.
I am told that Mr Carmichael recently travelled to Portsmouth to interview Mr Hancock, and plans to hold further meetings to explore the allegations. He is expected to report to Nick Clegg within a “couple of weeks”.
The news of this inquiry comes after a decision by Portsmouth council today to appoint an outside lawyer to examine the allegations against Mr Hancock, and explore whether the politician abused his position.
So prepare for another by-election in a Lib Dem seat in Hampshire. That’s certainly the view of Conservatives and Ukip, who believe it is very likely that Mr Hancock may shortly be forced to resign as an MP if the allegations are substantiated.
Ukip supporters in the constituency will be meeting tonight to formalise their local branch in readiness for a by-election soon, if necessary. And given what happened in Eastleigh, not far away, Ukip could well win such an election.
Mr Hancock is an extraordinary character, with a dandyish air – always with colourful socks and a handkerchief poking out of his breast pocket. Nationally, he’s perhaps best known for his alleged affair with a parliamentary researcher who was suspected of being a Russian spy.
Locally, in Portsmouth, Hancock is a hugely popular figure. He he was first elected an MP for Portsmouth South for the Social Democrats during a by-election in 1984, only to lose his seat in 1987. He was then re-elected as a Liberal Democrat in 1997, and has represented the constituency ever since.
But remarkably, Hancock has combined his work as an MP with considerable activity in local government, and is one of the few MPs to hold a dual mandate. He’s been a member of Portsmouth Council since 1970 – yes 1970, 43 years – which makes him one of the longest-serving councillors in the country (he was Labour from 1970 to 1981).
And during his first spell as an MP, from 1984 to 1987, he had a triple mandate, since he also sat on Hampshire County Council. And his service on Portsmouth Council is not a token effort – he’s even a member of the ruling Liberal Democrat cabinet in the city and holds a major portfolio – planning, regeneration and economic development.
Mr Hancock is now under attack on four fronts over the allegations by a female constituent. She says she approached Hancock in his capacity both as a councillor and as an MP to help deal with a problem with noisy neighbours. She claims he then abused his position of trust to make sexual advances. These are alleged to have involved dozens of allegedly suggestive text messages. And the constituent also claims Mr Hancock visited her home and exposed himself to her. Portsmouth Council say that their inquiry into these allegations is likely to take two to three months.
The second front is that Mr Hancock is facing a civil action. His constituent has employed the well-known civil liberties solictor Harriet Wistrich to advance her legal case, and they hope to advance particulars of the claim next month.
Third, there is the possibility of action by the police. In 2010 the police decided there was not enough evidence to prosecute Mr Hancock, but a new complaint was recently made to the Hampshire Constabulary by Don Jerrard, who stood as the Justice and Anti-Corruption candidate in the area’s police commissioner election last November.
Fourth, and perhaps most important, is the question of what, if anything, Nick Clegg does about Mr Hancock. The onus on the Liberal Democrat leader to treat the case seriously must be considerable after the wide perception that he and his party were slow to react over to allegations about improper sexual behaviour by their former chief executive Lord (Chris) Rennard – the story exposed by Channel 4 News.
Ms Wisttrich claims that her client’s first complaint to Mr Clegg, written personally in March 2011, was ignored. Ms Wistrich says that she herself then wrote to Clegg on her client’s behalf in September of last year, but the complaint was rejected on the grounds that the matter that previously been examined by both the police and the Parliamentary Standards Commission, and neither had decided to pursue the matter.
Earlier this year, Ms Wistrich complained to the Liberal Democrat Chief Whip at Westminster, Alistair Carmichael, and she claims to have a letter from Carmichael dated 26 February – exactly a month ago – promising to give her complaint “urgent consideration”. What has happened to that “urgent consideration”?
It has also taken some time for Portsmouth Council to consider the complaint made to them. Mr Hancock said he could not respond on the grounds of ill-health, and the fact he has been recovering from “open heart surgery”. He also lost his mother last year.
Nonethless Mr Hancock has taken part in a few Parliamentary votes at Westminster in recent weeks, such as those on gay marriage on 5 February, as well as attending the Council of Europe (to which he also belongs) and performing constituency and council duties in Portsmouth.
In a statement issued today Mr Hancock said he would “co-operate fully” with the council inquiry, but would not comment further.
Ms Wistrich describes today’s announcement by Portsmouth Council as a “breakthrough”.
The Liberal Democrats’ opponents are right to prepare for a by-election in Portsmouth South. While Mr Hancock’s allies insist that he is determined to soldier on, it is hard to see the MP surviving until the 2015 election. Indeed, local Tories claim that the polling company Survation has been carrying out a telephone poll in the constituency asking people how they would vote if Mr Hancock stood down on the grounds of ill-health and there was a by-election.
Rather than wait for messy and embarrassing inquiries and litigation and any subsequent findings, and also allow their political opponents to get themselves organised, it might make sense for Lib Dem strategists to persuade Mr Hancock to stand down now, and given his heart problems “ill health” would be a reasonable excuse.
Indeed, if Portsmouth Liberal Democrats act quickly they could have a by-election on 2 May, to coincide with the county council elections, and gamble on winning the seat again on the same tide of enthusiasm and good organisation that saw them triumph in Eastleigh. The circumstances would be similar to Eastleigh, as they have a majority of council seats in the seats, and their candidate would probably be the council leader Gerald Vernon-Jackson, the leader of the city council, who was also the party agent who organised the Liberal Democrats’ historic by-election triumph in Newbury in 1993.
A Lib Dem spokesman said tonight: “The Police held a full and thorough investigation into this matter in 2010 and decided to take no further action.
“The party considered the matter subsequently and, taking the police decision into account, agreed no further action was required.
“The Chief Whip has since been in contact with the solicitor for the complainant, and remains in contact with them regarding an on-going civil matter. Mike Hancock continues to deny the allegations.”
The Lib Dems are in real danger of getting into another Rennard situation here, only worse. Mr Clegg’s problem is how to persuade Mr Hancock to resign, since he’s always been one of the most independent-minded of Lib Dem MPs, and not the sort to bow to pressure from the top. Withdrawing the whip would probably make no difference, and Mr Hancock would simply remain an MP, and even less within the party’s control.
Mr Clegg could offer him a peerage, I suppose, but offering a peerage to someone facing the current allegations might look a lot worse.