Was the Zoom meeting of the century called illegally? Had all participants read and understood the standing orders? And, most importantly, did Jackie Weaver have the authority to kick Handforth parish council’s chairman out of the discussion?
Those were the questions engrossing Britain on Friday, after a chaotic, tension-packed and technologically challenged meeting of local government officials from a tiny English town went viral.
The video appears innocuous enough at first – a pre-Christmas get-together of councillors, to discuss matters relating to their quaint location in the northern English county of Cheshire.
But what follows may be the greatest, most ridiculous thing to come out of the past year: A truly anarchic 80 minutes of microphone failures, flushing toilets, insurrections and outright shouting matches that perfectly encapsulated the frustrations of lockdown.
“This meeting has not been called according to the law. The law has been broken,” the council chairman sensationally claims at one point, prompting a ripple of shock from participants.
“Read the standing orders. Read them and understand them!” another member later screams, sparking a round of head-shaking and furious tuts.
There are sudden dismissals, power grabs and an inexplicable Britney Spears reference, all of which combine for arguably the most hellish Zoom experience since the pandemic began.
And the call has made national stars of its participants – most prominently Jackie Weaver, the dogged chief officer of the Cheshire Association of Local Councils, who found fame overnight by withstanding a barrage of fury from parish councillors.
“99.99% of council meetings are just not like that. They are often less exciting,” Weaver told the BBC on Friday. “Of that meeting, I’m not absolutely sure who was in charge.”
What went down in the worst Zoom meeting ever?
The meeting in question was a gathering of a parish council, which sits at the lowest tier of England’s local government architecture and typically deals with matters such as the upkeep of community halls, village greens and war memorials. Weaver told the BBC that she had been brought in to support the Handforth councillors who, if YouTube videos are anything to go by, have been at loggerheads for some time.
“When do we plan to start?” the council’s chair, Brian Tolver, asks at the outset of the call, a recording of which was posted online by an attendee.
“F**k off,” comes a mumbled reply, perfectly setting the tone for the discussion.
Within moments, Weaver is bombarded with allegations that she is attempting to overthrow the council’s governance – its chairman angrily claiming the meeting was convened with disregard to the body’s bylaws.
“You have no authority here, Jackie Weaver, no authority at all!” Tolver shouts. Within seconds, he disappears.
“She’s just kicked him out. She’s kicked him out!” announces one of two members calling in from councillor Aled Brewerton’s iPad.
“The Vice Chair’s here. I take charge!” he says, attempting to wrestle control of the meeting from Weaver. “Read the standing orders. Read them and understand them!” he screams.
“Dear me,” David Pincombe observes with appropriate bewilderment.
But the anger at Weaver continues as she seeks to appoint a new chair for the meeting, with councillor Barry Burkhill telling Weaver: “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“The chairman of the council is the chairman of the council,” he sagely adds.
After a few more tense back-and-forths, it comes to the attention of the group that the chairman labeled himself as “clerk” on his Zoom name before his dismissal.
Ian Ball has a photograph, he informs the group. “He is not the clerk of parish council, whether he declares himself to be or not,” John Smith observes.
“Please refer to me as Britney Spears from now on,” Weaver dryly remarks.
The meeting went viral after comedian Steven Morgan discovered the video and sliced together a 20-minute highlight reel of the most jaw-dropping exchanges.
“It’s such a perfect combination of the pettiness of local politics and the common troubles with video communication,” Morgan told CNN.
“I’m not surprised it’s struck such a nerve with people, it’s the relatable lockdown content we all need right now.”
CNN has contacted Weaver and Tolver for comment.
Tolver, Weaver’s adversary during the call, told PA Media: “I cannot think of any other council meeting anywhere, that was taken over by an unqualified member of the public like this.”
“It was an appalling attack on their democratic rights,” he added.
For Morgan and countless other Brits, the video was seen with rather more humor. “It really does read like a scripted comedy and you can’t help yourself being taken along with the twists and turns,” he said.
“What’s the difference between a clerk and a proper officer? Why is the Andy Serkis character on Aled’s iPad so angry? Did Barry really appoint himself clerk? Why Britney Spears?”
Radio host Greg James called it “the best British comedy in decades,” while comedian Sue Perkins was furious at the video’s snub from the recently announced Golden Globe nominations.
Others praised Weaver for withstanding aggressive behavior from several of the participants.
The episode even prompted a tweet from George Osborne, the UK’s former Chancellor of the Exchequer and an MP for the region until 2017. “Local democracy in action – don’t remember Handforth parish council being quite so lively when I was the MP there,” he wrote.