They party hard in the pubs and bars of Cardiff city centre, and when staff working for the Welsh First Minister Carwyn Jones clocked off last Friday, they had a particular reason to celebrate.
Not only was another weekend about to begin, but the Labour heavyweight’s team of highly ambitious special advisers had just helped their smooth-talking boss to execute successfully what might previously have been a very awkward cabinet reshuffle.
For months, Jones, a wealthy former criminal barrister from the posh wing of his party, had been hoping to get rid of one of his long-serving ministers, Carl Sargeant, in order to (as they say in politics) make way for fresh talent.
Labour advisers including Matt Greenough (left), one of Carwyn Jones’s most senior aides, and Andrew Johnson (far right) last Friday
There had, however, been a big problem: while Sargeant, a 49-year-old former industrial worker who still lived on the North Wales council estate where he grew up, may not have been a particularly fashionable brand of politician, he remained hugely popular among the party’s traditional grass roots.
In the incestuous world of Welsh politics, over which the Labour Party has historically exerted almost complete control, sacking Sargeant might therefore cause ructions.
Jones, an accomplished climber of greasy poles, would perhaps have been accused of class-based snobbery, not to mention betraying a long-standing colleague and friend. He might even have made a few enemies.
Earlier that week, however, events had conspired to offer a tidy solution to the First Minister’s problems: amid continuing hysteria over the so-called ‘Sexminster’ scandal, three women had come forward to accuse Sargeant of improper conduct.
Their claims were, as yet, unverified. Said to involve ‘unwanted attention, touching or groping’, they were also insufficiently serious to warrant either the alleged victims, or the Labour Party, contacting the police.
But in the febrile atmosphere of a social media witch hunt, and without conducting any proper investigation, Carwyn Jones nonetheless felt they gave him a mandate to sack his colleague.
First Minister Carwyn Jones (left) with Carl Sargeant (right). The allegations against Sargeant have the First Minister the mandate to sack him
He duly issued a statement on Friday afternoon saying that ‘Sarge’, as he was known to friends, had been ‘removed’ from his job.
It was all very neat and tidy. And having presided over the ensuing reshuffle, senior staff in the First Minister’s office adjourned to a local pub.
In a photo uploaded to Instagram that night by Andrew Johnson, one of Jones’s special advisers, four of their number can be seen grinning cheerily while drinking beer, wine and spirits on a table laden with empty glasses.
Importantly, on the left-hand side of the image sat Matt Greenough, one of Jones’s most senior aides.
Despite having absolutely no expertise or experience in conducting highly sensitive disciplinary investigations, or in investigating sexual harassment, this political fixer had been the person who conducted multiple interviews with Sargeant’s accusers.
But we digress. For fast forward a week, and that gleeful photograph (which has now been removed from Instagram by Johnson) looks very ill-advised indeed.
To blame is an appalling tragedy which has thrown Welsh politics into a state of utter disarray, leading to multiple calls from across the political spectrum for Jones to resign, and prompting widespread soul-searching about the lynch-mob culture that has infected British public life.
Sargeant took his own life after unspecified allegations of improper conduct were made against him
It occurred on Tuesday morning, when police were called to the modest home in Connah’s Quay, North Wales, that Sargeant shared with his wife Bernie, the mother of his two grown-up children, Lucy and Jack.
There, they discovered that the veteran Assembly Member had taken his own life.
Sargeant had apparently felt humiliated and isolated by his sacking, which, in a perversion of natural justice, had occurred without him being given any details whatsoever of the allegations against him, or even being told the names of his accusers.
He had therefore been unable to defend himself.
As well as being sacked from the Welsh government, he had been suspended by his beloved Labour Party, which told him that a disciplinary officer in London had been appointed to conduct a lengthy investigation, but had also failed to shed any light on what he was supposed to have done wrong.
Adding to the Kafka-esque nature of proceedings, Sargeant had also suffered the indignity of watching Carwyn Jones give TV interviews on Monday in which the First Minister repeatedly argued that he’d had no option but to sack Sargeant, since ‘action is taken’ when ‘we have somebody who is in a position where they could embarrass the party or bring the party into disrepute’.
Sargeant’s lawyers had that afternoon written to the Labour Party describing those comments by Jones (who, as a former barrister, ought perhaps to know better) as ‘clearly prejudicing what is allegedly an independent inquiry by your office’.
The family also warned that the situation was having a serious effect on Sargeant’s mental state. Within 24 hours, he was dead.
The letter, which the family made public on Wednesday, lamented that despite repeated requests, Sargeant had still not been given any details of the claims made against him.
The former minister had apparently felt humiliated and isolated by his sacking which occurred without him being given any details of the allegations against him
Sensationally, it also raised concerns that staff working for Jones, including senior aide Matt Greenough — who was named in the letter — had sought to manipulate evidence in the case.
‘There appears to be a very real possibility that the evidence of the witnesses is being manipulated,’ it noted. ‘Numerous conversations with the witnesses by various members of the First Minister’s office at the very least must create uncertainties about the credibility of any evidence.’
Carl’s wife Bernie, meanwhile, accused Labour of failing to afford him ‘common courtesy, decency or natural justice’. A fellow Assembly member said he had been ‘thrown to the wolves’, while a host of influential Labour figures called for Carwyn Jones to resign.
Amid mounting public anger, Jones gave a press conference on Thursday in which he insisted he’d acted ‘by the book’, suggesting that he’d had no alternative but to sack Sargeant.
However, critics soon pointed out that the opposite was true: his actions appeared to have been entirely at odds with accepted protocols governing public life.
Sargeant was a Minister of the Crown. He should therefore have been suspended — rather than sacked — while an impartial member of the Civil Service conducted a thorough inquiry to establish whether he’d breached the Ministerial Code’s requirement to ‘behave in a principled way that upholds the highest standards of propriety’.
Just such a process is under way in Westminster, where Sue Gray, director-general of the Civil Service’s Propriety and Ethics team, is looking into allegations against Damian Green, Theresa May’s First Secretary of State.
Yet in Cardiff, that didn’t happen. Jones’s failure to follow this straightforward principle in dealing with Sargeant is now the subject of heated speculation among his colleagues. Some believe the First Minister guilty of straightforward incompetence; others wonder if he took a cynical decision to sack the late Assembly member for political reasons.
‘Jones wanted to carry out a Cabinet reshuffle in which he wanted to sack Mr Sargeant,’ one told the Western Mail newspaper. ‘Referring [him] to the Civil Service for investigation would have raised the expectation that if he was cleared he would be free to return to government office.’ Dismissing him, however irregular, bypassed that problem.
Then there is scepticism about the allegations against Sargeant. Some wonder if the women who complained about him (there are believed to have been three of them) came forward because they felt emboldened by events in Westminster. But others again speculate that more sinister forces may have been in play.
One associate of the late Assembly Member told the Western Mail: ‘It seems enormously coincidental that these allegations should have come to light right at the time when Carwyn Jones was announcing a reshuffle.’
Sargeant was a Minister of the Crown and should therefore have been suspended, rather than sacked
The exact timing of when the allegations were made is therefore of huge importance. And this leads to a second area of growing scandal.
During his round of TV interviews on Monday, Jones repeatedly and vigorously insisted he’d first heard of the harassment claims at the start of the week beginning on October 30, just a few days before Sargeant was sacked.
Asked whether he’d been told of them before, he stated: ‘No. They were drawn to my attention at the beginning of the week.’
However, multiple news outlets claim that statement by Jones was untrue. They insist one of the accusers had originally approached the First Minister in 2016.
The Western Mail says: ‘Such an allegation was made around 18 months ago, but was not regarded as credible. Jones is believed to have challenged Sargeant and accepted his response.’
The BBC carried an article by its respected veteran Welsh political correspondent Vaughan Roderick, stating: ‘Various sources of more than one party have told me that Jones had discussed allegations of misconduct with Sargeant once before, and had received an explanation of the incident.
‘The same sources also suggest that allegation was one of those that Carwyn Jones had asked the party to investigate as a result of the dismissal.’ If either report — which both dovetail with the Mail’s understanding of events — is accurate, it follows that Jones made a misleading public comment in the TV interviews he gave 24 hours before his former colleague took his own life. That would itself be a breach of the Ministers’ Code.
Sargeant’s family duly believe Jones now has very serious questions to answer. ‘They suspect the First Minister, or someone in his office, realised that the hysteria in Westminster might provide a quick and easy excuse to get rid of Sarge. In that context, it would be unforgivable if Jones misled the public about the timing of what happened, but it’s hard to think of another explanation for what he said on TV.’
Asked about the matter yesterday, and invited to clarify exactly when Jones first heard of the allegations against his minister, a spokesman would not comment, except to say that he was happy for the issue to be looked at by a future independent inquiry into the circumstances surrounding Carl Sargeant’s suicide.
Under mounting pressure, Jones last night instructed civil servants to appoint a QC to run such an inquiry, which will commence following a coroner’s inquest expected to begin on Monday.
A major part of the QC’s brief will be to examine the First
Minster’s ‘actions and decisions’ in relation to the case. The spokesman vigorously denied that politics played any role in the decision to sack Sargeant, pointing out that Jones had been unafraid to dismiss a number of other ministers in the reshuffle.
He also stressed that when senior aides and special advisers were photographed in the pub last Friday, they were not celebrating the sacking of Sargeant or anyone else.
The family of Carl Sergeant believe Carwyn Jones has serious questions to answer about his death
Be that as it may, there is no shortage of senior Labour figures who believe there was an organised effort to remove Sargeant from office.
In interviews yesterday, Leighton Andrews, a former minister in Welsh Labour, spoke of a ‘toxic culture’ of browbeating and harassment in the Welsh party, and accused Jones of presiding over ‘minor bullying, mind games, power games, favouritism, inconsistency of treatment to different ministers, deliberate personal undermining on occasion’.
‘Carl was unquestionably the target of some of this behaviour,’ he wrote. ‘The relentless drip-drip of disinformation — and worse — had a strain on his and others’ mental health. The First Minister was made aware of this by several ministers, including myself. Nothing was done.’
Bernie Attridge, deputy leader of Flintshire County Council and a Labour councillor in Sargeant’s local area of Connah’s Quay, used Twitter to contact Carwyn Jones directly. ‘I call on you to do the right thing and resign,’ he wrote. ‘The way you have treated Carl is unforgivable. You make me sick.’
While Jones hunkered down in Cardiff, holding crisis meetings, Daran Hill — a Welsh commentator who visited the family — said there was ‘disbelief’ in Connah’s Quay ‘that the First Minister is explaining his side of events to Assembly Members without offering any explanation to the public or the devastated family’.
He added: ‘It is awful that Welsh Labour has not tweeted condolences to Carl’s family, that he has been removed from the party’s website and that no tribute to him has been put up on it.’
Awful, but perhaps inevitable. For such was the monstrous injustice surrounding Carl Sargeant’s sacking that anger about his death will only continue to grow.
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