I was ditched for having depression, says former Tory election candidate
High Court to decide whether case can go to full hearing
06 February, 2020 — By Richard Osley
Hamish Hunter and Oliver Cooper campaigning together in 2017
DETAILS of bust-ups behind the scenes in the Hampstead and Kilburn Conservative Party have been submitted to the High Court, after a former election candidate said he had been removed from its election team after falling ill with depression.
Hamish Hunter is suing the local Association and six of its most prominent members for breach of contract and equality laws, conspiracy and has issued a defamation claim against his former running mate, the leader of the Camden Tories Oliver Cooper. On Friday, a master began looking at bundles of documents as lawyers for the Association and Cllr Cooper argued the case should be “struck out” and not go to a full hearing.
Mr Hunter had been selected among three candidates for the Hampstead Town ward for the 2018 local elections. But months before polling day, he was replaced by Maria Higson, who went on to win a seat in the council chamber.
Mr Hunter disputes claims that he voluntarily resigned, saying that he was unfairly and unlawfully forced out. He has conceded that his mental health had led to some “out-of-character” incidents that he had regretted but argued that the party should have supported him. His claim said: “The defendants opted for a secret intervention, forcing a young, vulnerable candidate out of his position ‘for his own good’ under threat of public shaming.”
The case is throwing a spotlight on how well local branches of political parties deal with mental health issues. Mr Hunter has also said a complaint over what he saw as his removal was conducted internally without him having the chance to give evidence. The case led to his depression getting worse, psychotherapy sessions, and to a suicidal episode, according to legal papers filed with the court.
Mr Hunter said he is now recovering and is representing himself in court seeking £50,000 in damages – including around £35,000 he would have received in members allowances if he had won a seat on the council. The ward is regarded as one of two safe areas for the Tories, so his election would have been almost certain if his name had been put on the ballot paper.
Mr Hunter has named David Douglas, the party’s agent in Hampstead and Kilburn, Cllr Higson, former chair Cllr Gio Spinella, current chair Kirsty Roberts and Frognal councillor Henry Newman in his action. All deny any wrong-doing and it is claimed Mr Hunter had made the decision to resign. With no resolution outside of court, the case is thought to have already run up a legal bill of more than £50,000 which could end up in the hands of the losing party.
At an earlier stage, Mr Hunter had suggested the case could have been resolved by triggering a by-election in Hampstead and restoring him as a candidate. Lawyers for the Association said on Friday that cases against Ms Higson and Cllr Spinella should at least be struck out immediately.
While once close running mates – Mr Hunter once regarded himself as being on a “team” working to make Cllr Cooper the next leader – the pair fell out when Mr Hunter looked up Cllr Cooper’s mother’s address on the Tories’ internal database of voting intentions, VoteSource. He said he had done this because Cllr Cooper had suffered a severe asthma attack while out campaigning and wanted to find out that he was all right.
-Asked to detail the chronology of events over two years, Cllr Cooper had claimed that Mr Hunter was “romantically obsessed” with him but that he had told Mr Hunter that he was not interested in other men sexually.
Mr Hunter said in one of his statements: “This contrasts with his conduct during our friendship when he would make jokes about his sexuality and light-hearted comments about being bisexual.”
Defence lawyers claimed on Friday that Mr Hunter had chosen to launch proceedings in the High Court rather than the county court to secure greater publicity against Cllr Cooper. They say the claim has been issued in the wrong court. Mr Hunter said it was an honest mistake to go first to the Royal Courts of Justice, as his own career as a lawyer did not cover this area of law.
The papers show that Mr Hunter had contacted local associations where it might have been assumed Mr Cooper would go for parliamentary selection before last month’s general election with details of his case.
He is also accused by the defence team of “harassing” Mr Cooper by threatening to release private WhatsApp messages in which Mr Cooper made disparaging remarks about colleagues. In particular, the documents appear to show that Cllr Cooper had called his predecessor as leader, the former parliamentary candidate Claire-Louise Leyland, a “f***wit”, a “c***” and “C***y McPunchface”.
Mr Hunter questioned the defence’s response to this, after it described his choice of words as “criticism”. “This is not criticism,” Mr Hunter said in a statement. “It is misogynistic, violent abuse.” Cllr Cooper said in his statement to the court: “I feel strongly that the claimant’s main motivation is to try and generate as much negative publicity about me as possible.”
Hampstead councillor Stephen Stark was among those in the public seats watching the day-long session of legal argument.
A judgment on whether the case should proceed is expected in the coming days.
Defamation action over ‘he tried to stab me’ claim
HAMISH Hunter, the former council election candidate bringing the High Court action against former colleagues, has issued defamation action, claiming Oliver Cooper told people that he had attempted to stab him with a knife.
He says there is no evidence for this claim and Cllr Cooper must apologise and desist from repeating the version of events. Mr Cooper is accused of making the claim in a conversation with other Tory members during drinks at the Garden Gate pub in South End Green.
He has also been asked to explain comments made about Mr Hunter during an exchange over the Facebook messenger service with a Conservative member in Devon. “He is sadly romantically obsessed with me,” Mr Cooper said. “It has been a truly harrowing experience for me… which included an attempt to stab me.”
He also made the claim in the chronology of events he supplied to the local Conservative Association after Mr Hunter began his complaint over the way he had lost the Hampstead Town election candidacy.
He said of an incident in September 2017 that he had gone to help Mr Hunter after being messaged that he was going to kill himself.
“I persuaded Hamish to put the knife down and talk outside, but Hamish runs back inside to grab the knife saying: I’ll kill you. You ruined my life,” Mr Cooper’s statement said. He added that his comments in the pub were in a private conversation, not addressing a crowd.
Mr Hunter said this did not happen and Mr Cooper’s comments are unfairly affecting his reputation, as they were being repeated “on the grapevine”.
“The claimant has made quite clear to Mr Cooper that the words complained of are entirely false and baseless (which Mr Cooper knows), Mr Cooper has failed to offer any apology or retraction,” his statement said. “Indeed he has in fact repeated the allegations, rather than withdraw them.” Mr Hunter said as soon as the claims had been brought to his attention he had sought remedy.