As someone who’s born and bred is Sandwell and has grown up over the years, politically speaking, in an environment where the Tories have always been THE enemy the one thing I never quite appreciated fully was quite how Tom (Watson) could get quite so fired up about the Lib Dems.
Ok, as MP for West Bromwich East he’s been the only one of Sandwell’s four Labour MPs who’s had to deal with them in any great number on his own patch - across the rest of Sandwell they’ve never been important enough to worry about - and he did come up to us from Kidderminster, which is very different political environment, but even so I don’t think I’ve quite appreciated just what it is that Tom finds so irritating about them…
…until this last few weeks.
But, hey. I can now truly say that I’ve seen the light - and all thanks to the Don Quixote of South Yardley, John Hemming.
To be fair, Hemming was always going to get on my wrong side at some point just for cutting a deal with the Tories which put them in control of Birmingham and him into the position of Deputy Leader of Birmingham City Council - makes you wonder whether his £37,000 allowance is paid over in pieces of silver or by BACS like everyone elses.
Tales of his self-agrandising opportunism are both legion and very well documented by the excellent LibDem Watch - this is the man who put out election leaflets with the slogan ‘Vote Conservative. Get Labour’ before promptly signing on the dotted line to become Mike Whitby’s ‘Bitch’ (definition 2c, before anyone asks) in return for political office so its no real surprise to find his recent exploits in relation to the Rover crisis and, in particular, electoral fraud exhibit all the usual hallmarks of Hemming at work.
Hemming’s recent maunderings on the subject of Rover are a case in point.
Its all the DTI’s fault, according to Hemming, that the last British-owned volume car maker is heading straight down the toilet, taking 6,000 jobs with it - nothing at all to do with the fact the Phoenix group - the consortium that he’s been taking the credit for having put together for the last few years - have managed to ream the company of an estimated £40 million while the company’s been losing money hand over fist.
Ah, yes but according to a recently updated page on the Yardley Lib Dems site:
“In 2003 John Hemming, being aware of the way in which the directors were extracting money and assets, looked at taking legal action to remove them from overall control. The conclusion was that this would damage the business and hit the local economy were it to proceed.”
And indeed, an article in the Telegraph from November 2003 seems to back up his recently rediscovered claim…
… except that there seem to be what Winston Churchill used to call ‘terminological inexactitudes’ between the statement on his Yardley website and the account given by the Telegraph.
Let’s start with the statement ‘being aware of the way in which the directors were extracting money and assets’. Well presumably Hemming became aware of what was going on at Rover the same way everyone else did, via the report on its finances which appeared in the Telegraph - anything else would suggest a degree of tacit complicity on his part in the actions of the ‘Phoenix Four’ - so there’s no credit to be gained from simply ‘being aware’ of what Phoenix was up to as that information was already in the public domain.
However then there’s the matter of him ‘considering legal action’ which was never followed through.
On this, the Telegraph reports that:
Commenting on the meeting with union officials, a spokesman for Phoenix said: “The meeting will involve company directors including John Towers and national union officials.” Turning to Mr Hemmings’s claim, she added that until yesterday Phoenix had not heard of it.
She said: “Lots of people were involved in the campaign to save Longbridge [the MG Rover plant]. BMW received a number of approaches but BMW did the deal with the four owners who own all the shares. The shares were all transferred to them.”
Now Hemming, as is well documented, is a millionaire businessman and, so you would expect, should have a better than average knowledge and understanding of company law, it being something with which he would have had fairly regular dealings during his business career. In which case its reasonable to assume that even without consulting a solicitor he would know, and would have known at the time, that there is nothing in Company Law which would permit a court to appoint independent directors to a private company other than:
a) in the event of insolvency, and
b) only then in relation to the Rover Pension Fund and not to the other god knows how many shell companies that the Phoenix Group set up after taking over.
So why was Hemming making statements to the press, back in November 2003, about legal action which he could reasonably have known was a complete non-starter right from off?
And even if we take the charitable view that he didn’t know and it was only on taking legal advice that he was told that he would have been pissing in the wind to even try to mount an action of the kind he claims he was prepared to bring, why is he now saying that he dropped the idea because it ‘would damage the business and hit the local economy were it to proceed’?
Looks very much to me like his actions, then and since, have had a lot more to do with trying to cover his own arse, once he realised that things were heading well in the direction of going pear shaped, than his having any genuine concern for the Rover workforce - but then that’s just my opinion - you will, of course, form your own.
One thing to note, however, was that there were avenues open to Hemming which would have allowed him to express his concerns about the possible asset-stripping of Rover by the Phoenix Group, assuming his concerns were for anything other than himself and his personal standing with the local electorate, not least via the DTI or by asking any one of a number of local MPs, including Richard Burden in whose constituency Longbridge is situation, to raise the matter with the Trade and Industry Secretary and/or the Commons Trade and Industry Select Committee - the latter being a place where, if there’s any justice, Hemming will be appearing to answer a few questions in due course.
Trouble is, as a Lib Dem, his party is committed to scrapping the DTI (see very bottom of page), the department that Hemming could have called upon to investigate what Phoenix were up to and who, since things really blew up at Longbridge with the SAIC deal going down the pan, Hemming has sought to blame for Rover’s demise.
Never mind that the Phoenix Four, the people that Hemming himself - as he’s claimed at every possible opportunity since - brought together to ’save’ Rover appear to have systematically sold off or transferred out every last bankable asset that the company had when they took over and bought it from BMW for a tenner.
Never mind that with the Phoenix Group in charge, Rover never once made a profit, even though it was Hemming himself who confidently predicted that the company would be back in the black by the end of 2002.
Never mind the fact that its bloody obvious now what’s been going at Rover, especially after the Phoenix Four, in what looks now to be a desperate attempt to cover their own arses, offered Rover £49 million in ‘collateral’ as a sop to try to buy off the growing criticism of their actions - collateral which, BTW, amounted to nothing more than the offer to put back to the company some of the things they’d hived off for themselves and which they now have a moral duty, if nothing else, to hand back to the workforce of Rover as part payment on the estimated £67 million hole in its pension fund.
No, in the weird and wonderful world of John Hemming, its the DTI that are solely and exclusively responsible for the death of Rover and for laying waste not only the the last remaining British volume car maker but to the numerous component suppliers and other related businesses which relied on Rover for their own existence.
Blame them. Blame the Government. Blame the Labour Party. Blame anyone but the bunch of chancers I brought in to take over the company five years ago…
… Blame anyone but me, pleeeaaaaaaseee!
I started off by drawing a comparison between Hemming and Don Quixote, a reference brought to mind by his incessent tilting at windmills when it comes to the issue of electoral fraud. Its a subject I’d planned to get on to in writing this piece - but that was before the news about Rover - and its one that I’ll return to in a few days, not least because since starting to write this I’ve also been told that today is also the day of the former Aston councillor’s legal challenge to the verdict of the recent Election Court and it seems worth waiting for the outcome of that before commenting further on that subject - unlike John I both understand and respect the importance of due process and the principle of sub-judice and consider it prudent to hold back on that front for the moment.
That’s not say, however, that I’m lost for an apt comparison to fit the occasion of Rover’s demise, in fact its one that so obvious that I wonder why I didn’t see it before now.
With Rover teetering on the brink of oblivion, until today when it finally tipped over, and with the ‘great and the good’ of the West Midlands (and beyond given the presence of Digby Jones of the CBI) pulling together to form a task force, which has one very noticable omission BTW - Jonh Hemming - in order to salvage what it can from this whole sorry mess, I think we’re entitled to enquire as what Hemming has been doing, himself, over the last week in support of Rover and its now redundant and, in some cases, pension-free workforce?
The answer, as you might guess, is just as it was back in November 2003 - plenty of noise but precious little action other than slagging off the DTI.
Except no! There it is, a faint glimmer of hope. The light at the end of the tunnel for all those workers and their families who’ve been staring the dole queue in the face for the last week…
… they can sue the DTI for negligence!
Halle-fucking-lujah! Praise the Deputy Leader! It’s the answer to all our prayers… we’ll all just screw the mortage payments and piss our redundancy money down the drain on expensive litigation on the say so of someone who can’t even manage to sue the right people in his own case, first time round.
Sod Don Quixote, this is pure Marie Antoinette -
“… But the poor people of Rover are starving, John. They have no jobs, no money and no food” said the flunky - you can take your pick which one, just look on the Birmingham City Council website under ‘councillors’ and choose one of the ones with ‘Liberal Democrat’ next to their name.
Well, its an ill wind that blows no one any good - as the old saying goes - and even John Hemming can claim to have got something out this whole sorry mess - a new campaign song.
So please, ladies and gentlemen, if you would kindly turn to this page in your MG Rover memorial hymnbooks, unfurl your Union Jacks. start the engines of your Mini Coopers and sing along with John…
This is the Self Preservation Society
The Self Preservation Society…