I attended Andrew MacKay's meeting in Bracknell yesterday along with about 400 other constituents.
It was a very enlightening meeting. Beforehand I was asked by a radio interviewer what I thought and I stated that I felt he should stand down as an MP (as I have blogged about previously) but that I was interested to hear what he had to say.
There was an interesting vignette just before I entered the hall when a local constituent was trying to enter the hall with a camcorder and the man on the door was telling him that this would not be allowed. When both myself and the man queried why the response was that the instructions were to not let anyone in who was going to film it and that the media had been invited to do this. Peter Henley (BBC South's Political Editor) was right behind us and pointed out that the media actually weren't allowed to film inside the hall. I think this was a measure of how concerned Mr MacKay and his supporters were about what was about to transpire. As it turned out, the chap persisted and was eventually allowed to take his camcorder in and filmed the whole thing (I was sitting next to him).
The meeting got off to a shaky start when the Chairmen of the proceedings (David Osborn, former Rector of Bracknell) stated that we could of course expect "transparent honesty" from Mr MacKay and large parts of the audience broke out into derisive laughter. This must have been very embarrassing for a Member of Parliament of 25 years standing.
Mr MacKay gave a 10 minute speech where he outlined what had happened from his perspective. Here are the main points from my contemperaneous notes:
- He apologised "profoundly" for dragging the constituency into the expenses furore.
- He said that he took a "tough line" on MPs expenses. However I noted as wrote this that he voted against transparency last year.
- He said that as he submitted his claims to David Cameron's scrutiny team he had "no knowledge" of what was to come.
- He resigned because he thought he would be a distraction to what the Conservatives are trying to do.
- He said that he did not hide from the media.
- One of his main lines of defence was that he had "voluntarily" submitted his claims to the scrutiny panel and that he had spoken to the Daily Telegraph after his resignation and they said to him that they had not been going to run a story on him about this. He seemed to think that this fact was somehow in his favour. It is worth unpacking this a little bit. His claims that the submission was voluntary seems disingenuous. All Cameron's advisers had to submit them, if he had not done he would have surely been sacked so it was in effect compulsory. Also, just because the DT had not twigged the significance of Mr MacKay and Ms Kirkbride's situation does not seem to me to be any sort of defence.
- He said that he had taken advice from the fees office and they had not pointed out at all that there was any problem. A familiar defence from MPs caught up in this and cuts no ice with the public now. Why didn't HE think it was wrong?
- Finally he announced that he would put himself up for readoption by his local party in order that they could decide if following this scandal they still wanted him to stand but he insisted he would fight to remain as the MP and candidate. At this point, to me it seemed like he was pleading for his political life and it was not an edifying sight.
After this the meeting was opened up to questions/comments from the floor. There were far too many to list here but they were overwhelmingly negative about him and angry. Here is a flavour:
- One person stated that he did not wish to be represented by a thief.
- Another accused him of fraudulent behaviour.
- There were several questions and comments about why he did not live in the constituency. He did not have a good answer for this.
- Several commenters stated that he had damaged or ruined the constituency.
- I asked him how he responded to a poll on the Get Bracknell website where 65% of respondents (out of 628 votes) had said he should step down. His response was that was not the reaction he was getting from other people he had spoken to. I have to say though that the feeling from the hall seemed to me that more than 65% of people were against him.
- A former metropolitan Police Officer read out excerpts from the Green book on parliamentary expenses and concluded that Mr MacKay's actions based on that were fraud.
- One audience member quoted an e-mail exchange he had had with him where on the 12th May Mr MacKay had stated that anyone caught up in the scandal should lose the party whip. This was of course just before Mr MacKay himself got caught up in the scandal. the questioner than said: "So mr macKay, should you lose the whip". For me, this was the question of the night and Mr MacKay was all at sea. He did his best to get out of it and did so by not really answering.
And on, and on it went. There were a few positive comments but most of them still questioned his judgement and went on to say that he had let them down.
One contribution that sticks in my mind was from an elegant lady with a cut glass accent who described herself as dyed in the wool Conservative. She eulogised about how good he had been for Bracknell and that she would vote for him and support him if he wished to stand again but that for the good of the party he should step down because she feared that he had lost the support of the constituency. I felt that this was possibly the most devastating comment of the evening for Mr MacKay.
In the end I started to even feel a bit sorry for Mr MacKay. The barage was almost relentless and he cut a diminished figure as the meeting went on. He kept on standing up and replying but many of his responses were simply re-statements of his previous comments and he rarely dealt with the substance of the questions put to him.
However, what sympathy I had with him soon evaporated after the meeting when I saw his contributions on the media. He was trying to claim that the feeling of the meeting was with him and that 75% percent or more of the audience were with him. Clearly, that does not reflect the way I saw the meeting from where I was sitting. Watch this clip from BBC News where Mr MacKay is being interviewed by BBC South's Political Editor Peter Henley:
The gentlemen who interrupts Mr MacKay during the interview is absolutely right. He was misrepresenting the view of the meeting and another voice off camera later on points out that despite calls from the floor, the Chair of the meeting (David Osborn, the former Rector of Bracknell) refused to take a show of hands to gauge support towards the end.
In this piece from Sky News, Victoria Gatenby says that is is disingenuous for him to claim that he had the support of the meeting and that support is ebbing away from him, even amongst Conservative activists and that the feeling is he is unlikely to be reselected:
There has been further reaction to this story across the media and internet.
Here is the BBC News report on the meeting.
John Hicks from Radio Bracknell in a detailed and balanced review of the meeting thinks that the reaction within the hall may have signalled the beginning of the end for Bracknell's MP.
An article in the The Independent about the meeting and its aftermath quotes one of the comments from the floor that I also recall: "I have no wish to be represented by a thief".
This thread on the Conservative Home website (a site for Conservative grassroots activists) demonstrates the depth of Mr MacKay's problems. The majority the more than 40 comments at the end of the blog post are saying that he should stand down or be sacked.
Peter Henley, the BBC South Political Editor (who is an excellent and prodigious user of Twitter) tweeted this morning: "Tories saying MacKay is toast after last night. But spinning that Cameron wants to get in clean skins". He also tweeted to me that he is now off for a holiday. I don't blame him. I bet political editors across the country are totally knackered now!
Another interesting point that I have just read on Liberal Burblings is that according to a clip on "Have I Got News for You" last night, Mr MacKay's wife Julie Kirkbride was challenged on a local radio station 3 years ago that they were double claiming allowances and she put the phone down. This could be the final nail in the coffin of this story because it makes Mr MacKay's defence that he did not know it was wrong look increasingly shaky.
I await with interest what the consequences of last nights meeting and this new relevation will be.
If you wish to contribute to the debate locally, please go to this blog-post on Bracknell Blog and place a comment there.
UPDATE1: I almost forgot that I called into Iain Dale's (Conservative blogger and former PPC) politics phone in show on the internet based Play Radio UK last night. I outlined my feelings from the meeting and also got some interesting information from Iain that the re-adoption meeting is likely to only feature one candidate (Mr MacKay) and that it will be a take it or leave it affair. I had assumed that other candidates would also be put forward but I bow to Mr Dale's greater knowledge on these things than me! The show can be listened to online here. I am on from about 47:00 minutes until about 54:30 although I spend the first minute trying to find a better signal and being accused by Iain and Donal of calling them from the toilet! Scurrilous!
UPDATE2: I have changed the title of the blog post (from "I think Andrew MacKay's position is now untenable" to "I attended Andrew MacKay's meeting and I think his position is now untenable") to make it clear that I attended the meeting as I think this is an important detail.
UPDATE4: Here is some footage of the meeting including questions from the audience and answers from Mr MacKay as well as audience reaction. I ask the second set of questions near the start.