Did Manchester City Council rig the vote on a controversial car park development? Was the Leese administration “rehearsed in private and performed in public”? Twelve guerrilla snapshots from the municipal front line

[Photo: David Dixon / Creative Commons]
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January 2020, and incredible scenes at the town hall. Full council is in session for the first time since the report into Operation Augusta was published, exposing the frustration of police efforts to investigate the sexual exploitation of children in Manchester care homes.

Labour councillors – beginning with leader Sir Richard Leese – queue to apologise in the solemnest terms. They knew nothing. If only they had. Lessons will be learned.

At recess there are hugs, arms gingerly patted, tilty heads nodding at listeny angles, a gentle wave of mutual empathy ebbing back and forth across the chamber.

Councillors comforting councillors. Sadness begetting sadness. Politicians at bath time in the civic zoo struggling to find the posture for the occasion.

Sue Cooley enters the session – the social care head at the time of fifteen-year-old Victoria Agoglia’s death – risen dramatically from her sickbed, to be helped in her unsteadiness to her seat by an attentive Karney.

“I know that I would remember if I had been told that large numbers of suspected paedophiles were hanging around our care homes,” she tells the floor.

As an observer, it’s a difficult scene to process.

 

Afterwards, in an upstairs meeting room, the Liberal Democrats are having cake.

The air is alive with the morning’s events and leader John Leech – too preoccupied with the matter at hand for pudding – is on his feet in a corner of the room peering intently into a laptop as though into a stereogram; as if by staring hard enough at it the picture of a high-profile resignation will materialise.

“Leese is finished!” he declares. “I can’t see how he can survive! This will finish him. He will be proven to have lied!”

Is this not fanciful, though? The Supreme Commander of the Nano-party at his most impetuous? Tribal to his toes, boxed by the bunker mentality for which he’s renowned?

Unacknowledged and largely unspoken-to along the corridors of Mancunian power, the Lib Dem leader is a curiously unpopular figure.

Famed for his heroic casework levels and the loyalty he inspires in the young workers he brings through his offices, the West Didsbury representative is nonetheless a man so disdained within the Labour Group – they say he’s the leader of the John Leech Party – that to listen to a council meeting can be like hearing an undesirable being ejected from a pub by a self-righteous mob.

This strange acrimony was seemingly the force which drew Karney into a public spat on budget day in 2019 after Leech took down some posters the Labour man had tacked up on the mayoral platform for the benefit of the cameras.

 

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Karney had printed them off on foolscap in the reprographics room, a letter at a time, laminated them, then stuck them up as the session was about to begin.

Which is against council rules, said Leech.

Footage of the ensuing throwdown, in which the Lib Dem man sat staring at the middle distance as Karney towered over him – “Give them back! They’re not yours to take down! How dare you! Give them back!” – found its way onto the Manchester Evening News website a couple of hours later.

The resulting investigation cleared the Harpurhey representative of bullying the opposition leader, despite the video evidence – but found him guilty of using council stationery in perpetrating the stunt.

As a trackball crystal ball, then, Leech’s laptop should surely know in its wires what it is like when the rug of expectation is pulled from under its master’a aspirations.

“There are ways of distancing yourself in a game of who-knew-what,” I say. “As you know.”

“We’ll have to give it time and see what comes in.”

There is, it can be said, a footnote in the report elucidating that care home staff were offered anonymity by the authors in return for their evidence – a detail which has alchemised in Liberal Democrat company into a suspicion that confidentiality agreements were thrust under staff noses.

If attempts to gag were to emerge then the buck would most likely not so much stop at the council leader’s office as take out a wall.

But yet another indictment is offered by one of the thirteen-strong Children and Young People Scrutiny Committee, which convenes in the antechamber the following week to discuss the care home affair.

“One of the worst committees I’ve ever attended,” he tells me. “If you were to watch that meeting back, I would say from the questions, from the level of debate, the understanding, the level of interest

…not one person, other than me, had read that report.”

 

Is that credible, I wonder?

Is it an honest measure of complacency in the one-party state?

If you want venal politics, it’s sometimes said, go to Liverpool…where the regeneration game is under year-round police investigation, seemingly…where mayors can appear on Granada Reports with the words “witness-tampering” scrolling by on a ticker.

That’s never quite been the Manchester optic.

How come everything seems to get through on a nod here, though?

What’s the truth about politics here? The Mancunian municipality, the largest council chamber in the land…where the Labour group scoop ninety-four of the available seats, and the Liberal Democrats the other trifling two.

“Nothing ever really happens in Manchester,” one Labour councillor tells me. “Nothing ever changes. Everyone works for Sir Richard. Sir Richard is the story.”

 

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