Fame, fans and parish council elections: what Jackie Weaver did next

Britain’s unlikeliest national treasure talks to Colin Drury about local democracy, bullying and Anton Du Beke

Monday 03 May 2021 15:56
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Jackie Weaver at her Shropshire home
Jackie Weaver at her Shropshire home
T

he most surreal moment for Jackie Weaver has not been Andrew Lloyd Webber composing a song about her or Joanna Lumley playing her in a comedy sketch or even the entire cottage industry of merchandise – T-shirts! Mugs! Cards! – which has sprung up bearing her image.

It was when she met her hero Anton Du Beke.

“I was completely starstruck,” she laughs today. “I’ve adored him for years and then I’m suddenly on the same TV show. My mind went blank. Apparently, my mouth said all the right words but I have no memory of it.”

As a new bona fide celebrity, would she do Strictly herself? A look of horror. “No!” she exclaims.

What? Not even if she got to partner with Anton himself? “That would be worse,” she guffaws. “His previous [partner] was Ann Widdecombe and I wouldn’t want any parallels drawn there!”

Thus begins an hour in the rollicking good company of perhaps Britain’s most unlikely new national treasure and feminist icon: Jackie Weaver, the hero of Handforth; the woman now known for having both the authority and, more importantly perhaps, the Zoom boot-out button.

It is three months next week since this unassuming 62-year-old became an overnight superstar after a video of her dispatching a series of aggressive (male) parish councillors in Cheshire from an online meeting went viral. How’s life been since? “I’ve been left speechless in so many ways and so many times,” she says. “I never imagined someone would make me into a cake.”

We’re speaking over Zoom – because what better way to speak to Jackie Weaver? But two things became almost immediately clear from the moment the mother-of-three appears in that now familiar study at her Shropshire home. One: she is totally, utterly and unerringly passionate about local democracy. And two: she’s a hoot.

To wit: at one point, I wonder if she has any regrets about the whole unedifying (though entertaining) meeting that saw her catapulted into the nation’s hearts. Oh, yes, she says: “If I’d known [it was going to end up being watched by millions] I’d have done my hair beforehand.”

Former chair of Handforth parish council, Brian Tolver

For the uninitiated (do they even exist?), a quick recap: the video itself showed a meeting of Handforth parish council’s planning and environment committee descending into chaos. Weaver – chief officer with the Cheshire Association of Local Councils – had been called in to oversee things amid pre-existing complaints about member conduct. Once there, she found herself having to deal with those very members as they attempted to stop the meeting even going ahead.

I’ve been left speechless in so many ways and so many times. I never imagined someone would make me into a cake

“You have no authority here, Jackie Weaver,” one of them, the then chair Brian Tolver, tells her. “No authority at all.”

It turns out she does. She summarily boots him off the call. When another councillor, vice-chair Aled Brewerton, erupts at the affront – screaming that the officer should read (and understand) the standing orders – she sends him packing too. A third, Barry Birkhill, is also dispatched.

“It’s nothing if not lively,” Weaver is seen saying cheerily before she and the remaining members crack on with business.

Although the meeting was held on 10 December, the video itself went viral on 4 February after being posted to Twitter by a teenager from Stoke who had come across it. “Obviously, I love Jackie Weaver,” 16-year-old Janine Mason told The Independent afterwards. “She’s now my hero.”

Why does she, Weaver, think her actions struck such a chord with people? “If you could answer that question, you’d be very rich,” she replies.

That may be modesty. The wider consensus is that by staying cool, calm and collected – but while simultaneously taking absolutely no nonsense – she epitomised the kind of character most of us perhaps aspire to have. She displayed, surely, the very best of British?

It’s very kind of me to suggest that, she intimates, but she won’t be saying it herself.

“It’s funny,” she admits. “When it went viral – or rather when I eventually understood what going viral meant – I went back and looked at the video again because I couldn’t understand why anyone was taking notice of what happened. It was unpleasant, but by the time the meeting had finished [an hour after the three men had been ejected], we’d actually had an average, fairly productive parish council meeting. The unpleasantness didn’t stick with me.”

Afterwards, she says, she gave it no real thought: “I watched crap telly and went to bed – the same as most nights”. Today, she dismisses the trio simply as “rather pathetic”.

Nonetheless, the fact the incident exploded into the public consciousness has, she reckons, actually been a good thing for local, grassroots democracy – standing orders and all.

“The limelight thrown onto town and parish councils has been such a positive thing,” she says. “Nobody has taken any notice of our elections for the last 25 years. But this year, that turn around is just amazing. We’re getting real interest.”

Visitors to websites are up, according to the National Association of Local Councils, while Weaver adds that attendance at meetings nationally has increased by 20 per cent in the three months since February.

Can that really all be down to a barney in an obscure Cheshire village? It certainly shouldn’t be underplayed, she says.

“We have spent years putting so much energy into generating interest [in local councils] and it never really brought us into the public eye,” explains Weaver. “But what that clip did was make that connection for people that here was a mechanism [for influencing local change]. And what’s amazing is that now that connection has been made, people are staying interested.”

“When it first happened,” she says, “my husband and I thought we’d do everything we could over that weekend to get the message out about councils because we thought we needed to grab this opportunity we’d been given. I never imagined, three months later, I’d still be getting asked to go on Escape to the Country to talk about local democracy.”

And she’s enjoying it? “Yes, because I love talking about it.”

‘The limelight thrown onto town and parish councils has been such a positive thing’

That passion was first sparked more than 25 years ago. As a mother to three boys – now aged between 29 and 36 – she had given up working for Mothercare to look after her sons full time, but wanted something outside of the family to keep her mind occupied – so she joined the local parish council. When a job as an officer providing administrative and legal support to Cheshire’s 240 parish councils later came up, she jumped at it. She’s been doing it – and loving it – ever since.

Now, it seems, to the upcoming elections and the future beyond.

None of those men in the meeting, it’s worth saying, have apologised to her. Tolver stepped down as chair just this week but, practically speaking, there is no mechanism for sanctioning parish councillors guilty of bad behaviour. Punishment can come only at the ballot box – although, as it happens, there is currently a government call for evidence to review if some form of penalty should be created where conduct is found to be especially egregious.

Generally, Weaver thinks such a change would be beneficial. “The last thing I want to do is give the impression parish councils are a hostile environment because that isn’t true,” she says. “But [at the moment] an individual councillor can cause enormous pain and disruption without any redress. If some form of sanctions came on the back of what happened, that would be a good thing.”

Along similar lines – and as our time comes to a close – we get onto her metaphorical mailbag.

It’s been bursting at the seams every day the last three months. At one point, she was averaging 400 emails a day – “and I’m afraid I’m one of those people who likes a clear inbox”.

Most were complimentary. But there has been no small amount of abuse too.

“All the advice we give to people is ignore it,” she says. “But actually what we have created is a whole generation of people who think it is absolutely fine to say whatever s*** you like to anybody and the expectation is they will not respond.”

“That cannot be the right way to deal with this,” she concludes. “As a society, we need to handle it better. We cannot just keep accepting abuse. If you want a soapbox moment from me, that’s it.”

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