Conservative MP Mike Weatherley left campus on Wednesday to escape a group of protesters who had gathered outside the Silverstone building at the University of Sussex.
He had been due to speak to students about the recent criminalisation of squatting in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) that came into effect on 1 September and was named after the Hove MP.
Mr. Weatherley’s presence on campus attracted a large contingent of non-students, many of them squatters and pro-squatting activists. He entered the building from the rear and hesitated outside the lecture theatre.
His arrival was signalled by a crowd surging towards him from inside the room causing the MP to retreat out of the building in concerns for his safety.
The planned peaceful debate quickly descended into protest as Mr. Weatherley’s retreat was met with pursuit by the activists. According to the Squatters Network of Brighton (And Hove Actually) (SNOB(AHA)) website, some people had “decided that they weren’t going to let him speak”.
The exact circumstances surrounding the decision to cancel are disputed, with one protester claiming that, “a security guard was the first one to act out violently before we could even get into the lecture hall”, with others treating the MP’s retreat as an incitement to action.
In an interview with The Badger, Mr Weatherley said: “As I was entering the door that led to the lecture hall, a bunch of pro-squatting supporters rushed towards me, and one particular individual pushed and tried to land punches, and of course they started chanting, at which point myself and the security decided that there was no point going into the lecture hall.”
However, a series of videos posted on YouTube by the user ‘ReOccupy Brighton’ appear to show Mr. Weatherley calmly telling the head of the university’s Conservative Society, Matt Boughton – who had invited Mr. Weatherley to speak – that, “It’s cancelled.”
Following Mr. Weatherly’s retreat, his delegation can be seen on the video footage walking away, initially at least, unmolested from outside the lecture hall, being heckled and subsubquently chased by protesters.
One squatter, who wished to remain anonymous, called Mr. Weatherley “pathetic” and accused the MP of having “run away with his tail between his legs”.
Another said simply: “everybody got a bit carried away, but it wasn’t unjust”.
Though the reason for the debate’s cancellation still remains disputed, the online footage clearly goes on to show crowds chasing Mr. Weatherley and, according to the SNOB(AHA) website, “he eventually fled into the Silverstone building and locked himself in the room, besieged by the mob.”
Officers from Sussex Police were quickly at the scene as it was plainly too dangerous for the MP to leave the room without an escort.
After a few minutes he was seen being rushed into a riot van surrounded by officers, with projectiles being pelted by the crowd that turned rapidly into a self-proclaimed ‘mob’.
Furious pro-squatter protesters surrounded the vehicle, repeatedly banging the sides and chanting profanities, attempting to prevent the MP’s escape.
The van’s eventual departure gave way to some minor scuffles with the remaining officers, before the crowd began chanting “FUCK THE POLICE”, and dispersing slowly.
Mr. Weatherley told The Badger that he was unharmed but that one of his female aides had been hit in the throat by a rock, and was “ in considerable discomfort” and “very shaken up”.
At the time of going to print, Mr. Weatherley’s website claimed a second female member of his staff was injured, although he made no such claim in our interview.
He went on to praise the police for their efforts in protecting his team and removing him from a potentially dangerous situation.
He was scathing, however, in his criticism of the University and its security arrangements in preparation for the event, saying initially, “I don’t see how any politician can go back to Sussex University now given that they have destroyed democracy… [The debate] was hijacked by anarchists, whom the University seemed to have lost control of.”
However, when questioned by The Badger over the suggestion that those causing disturbance were non-students he said: “it’s a university security issue, why are they allowing non-students on site for an event such as this?”
The University of Sussex commented on the issue of security at the event, stating that: “our security team liaised with the student organisers and with Mr Weatherley’s office. We also discussed the security arrangements with the police to ensure the safety of all of the students attending and the student society’s guests on campus.
“We put measures in place and took action to deal with these unusual circumstances in ways we believe were timely, appropriate and proportionate. The actions of a small group of non-students is a matter for the police, to whom we are providing whatever information we can.”
A representative from SNOB(AHA) who gave his name as Toby, was satisfied that the day “went as well as it could have done” – a view that was shared on the organisation’s website later in the day, which proudly declared: “All in all, a great day out!”
The website also lists chants that had been used that day, including “Mike Weatherley’s getting lynched!”, “squatting will stay – whatever they say” and “one solution, execution!”
Toby was adamant that there was little to no point in having a conversation or debate with the MP, as all previous attempts to accost him at “his PR stunts” had previously failed to open a dialogue.
The Hove and Portslade MP personally spearheaded the campaign in the Commons to make squatting in residential properties a criminal, rather than a civil, offence for the first time in England and Wales.
“Weatherley’s Law”, as squatters’ rights groups dubbed it, caused anger amongst squatting communities and homelessness charities across the country.
It was subject to controversy during its consultation period when a large number of legal academics, solicitors and barristers wrote to The Guardian newspaper in September 2011 accusing Mr. Weatherley and his colleagues of ‘making misleading statements and failing to challenge inaccurate reporting.’
Amongst the protesters however, there was a distinctly divided sense of purpose. Many were aggrieved that they had not had a chance to debate, and, when asked if they would be willing to seek compromises in their bid for “more autonomous living”, were strongly in favour of a diplomatic solution:
“Once they’re prepared to meet in the middle, then we can talk, but clearly that’s not the case here,” said one Brightonian squatter.
Mr. Weatherley was, however, sympathetic in his support for a new dialogue with squatters that might lead to legislation-regulated communal living spaces.
He stressed that the LASPO Act was not intended to imprison more homeless people, or even squatters, rather its emphasis was to protect homeowners’ rights and deter squatters from targeting residential homes.
When asked if he was in favour of a government-backed deal between landlords of long-term disused properties and squatters, he said unequivocally, “I think that’s a brilliant idea.”
With factions on both sides of the debate who seem reluctant to compromise, what might have been an afternoon of rhetoric and debate was instead dominated by adrenaline-fuelled ‘fight or flight’ decisions, exacerbated by what one attendee described as “poor preparation from the University’s security staff”.
One undergraduate who was present (and asked to remain anonymous) commented that it was “a sad day for democracy that students couldn’t have their voice heard on campus.”