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Blue blood
Legal News , Issue 1621

hancock-bridgen.jpg IN "cases ideally both sides would lose" news, last month saw the libel battle between disgraced former Tory MPs Andrew Bridgen and Matt Hancock reach its first court stage.

The former handsy health secretary's legal team somehow managed to keep a straight face while presenting an extraordinary argument as to why the case should proceed no further.

Brought by demented anti-vaxxer, occasional party-pal of Laurence Fox and fallen potato potentate Bridgen, it concerns a tweet Hancock posted on the same day in January 2023 that Bridgen made a much-publicised comparison between Covid vaccines and the Holocaust.

Sick burn
Although Bridgen helpfully made it clear to the court he had no problem with other parliamentary colleagues calling him things like "'offensive', 'sick', 'irresponsible' [and] 'inappropriate'" because of his Holocaust comment, he objects to being called antisemitic, as he claims Hancock did in a tweet which read: "The disgusting and dangerous anti-semitic, anti-vax, anti-scientific conspiracy theories spouted by a sitting MP this morning are unacceptable and have absolutely no place in our society."

This message was posted less than two hours after the Conservative party had announced that Bridgen was having the whip suspended for having "caused great offence"; half an hour after prime minister Rishi Sunak had condemned such views and "the scourge of antisemitism" in response to a question at PMQs; and alongside a video of the latter exchange.

Reference point
Nevertheless, Hancock tried to have the case struck out on grounds that Bridgen had failed to "plead a viable case on reference". Last month his KC, Aidan Eardley, attempted to convince the Honourable Mrs Justice Steyn that reasonable readers would not necessarily have understood the message he posted about Bridgen as being about Bridgen.

"The defendant's tweet refers to a 'sitting MP'. There are 650 MPs," the judgment notes. "Mr Eardley submits that even if (generously) some degree of knowledge of the claimant's political activities and interests were ascribed to the reader, it would still be unreasonable for such a reader to jump to the conclusion again, without knowledge of other facts that, of all possible MPs, the defendant's tweet was about the claimant."

The hypothetical reader, lest we forget, is someone sufficiently interested in politics to read the Twitter account of a former cabinet minister.

But Eardley also suggested "it is fanciful" to suppose that Bridgen's "new status as a person from whom the whip had been withdrawn was an attribute" any such person would have known about him on the day it was headline news.

Persistent Steyn
The judge, by contrast, ruled that it is "highly likely the claimant would have little difficulty establishing reference innuendo", although she criticised Bridgen's particulars of claim as badly drafted and gave him a chance to go away and write them better (his legal bills are being generously covered by a loan from investment tycoon and culture warrior Jeremy Hosking, who also bankrolls Fox's Reclaim party, which is helpful since Steyn also ordered Bridgen to stump up £44,300 towards Hancock's costs).

The Eye suggests another solution that would definitely add to the gaiety of the nation: all 648 other sitting MPs should sue Hancock for defamation too, and force him to prove it wasn't any of them he was referring to.

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