A Bridgen of sighs

By Searchlight Team
By Martyn Lester

Football fans (other sports are also available) will know the feeling well. Where two clubs that you despise are up against each other, and you curse the impossibility of both teams reaching full time having been on the wrong end of a 5-0 trouncing. One point for a draw seems far too generous for either of them. Pesky Laws of the Game! And thus it is in the legal battle between former Tory Health Secretary Matt Hancock and the independent MP for North West Leicestershire, Andrew Bridgen.

“Whoa!” you cry, as well you might. “Unless I’ve suddenly gone prematurely sea lion, you told us a few months ago that Bridgen had defected to the Reclaim Party.” And you would be right – for the most part. Bridgen had already lost the Conservative whip by then, and therefore had nowhere to “defect” from. But he did indeed publicly nail his colours to the jury mast of Reclaim, becoming its first and only (and hopefully last) member of parliament.

But a few days after I wrote that piece, the Bridgen of Sighs performed a volte face and left the more than slightly foxed Reclaim to resume sitting as an independent.

He said in a prepared statement: “I have come to this decision purely because of a difference in the direction of the Party, I will still wholeheartedly support the policies and values of the Reclaim Party and wish them all of the best in their future endeavours. However, I need to make a very important decision with a general election pending … I need to put North West Leicestershire first, above any Party allegiance.”

It is an argument slightly lacking in clarity, is it not? If he still supports all of Reclaim’s policies and values, what can the “difference” that concerns him possibly be? It seems a reasonable guess that he has looked at Reclaim’s “direction” and concluded that it is downward.

It must be a trifle embarrassing for Reclaim’s sugar daddy Jeremy Hosking – who has poured millions into right-wing politics – to learn that Bridgen appears to think that he has a better chance of hanging on to his seat, running as an almost unfunded independent, than he would as a candidate with Hosking’s money and political machinery behind him, with the name Reclaim next to his name on the ballot form.

Considering that Bridgen’s parliamentary declarations of interest disclose that Hosking has lent him a staggering amount of money – close to £4.5m, interest free – he looks more than a touch disloyal.

Poll advantage

We are, though, not in any hurry to bet the house on Bridgen actually standing as an independent once the election has been called.

He will undoubtedly have noted that Reform UK (formerly the Brexit Party) is currently sitting in the teens in the opinion polls (in one YouGov poll just four points behind the sinking Conservatives), compared with Reclaim’s square root of bugger all, and that his fellow defenestrated Tory MP “30p” Lee Anderson has migrated to the Richard Tice-led party.

That it is widely assumed that Nigel Farage will jump ship from Reform to the Tories after the election (in a bid to become Conservative leader) may complicate Bridgen’s thinking. But a functioning party machine and a countrywide support of up to 15 per cent may look to him like a better platform than that offered by either Reclaim or independence. We will see.

Lies and libel

“Anyway,” you cry, “what about this stuff you started with – about Bridgen and Hancock?” Fair question. You may recall that it was Bridgen’s obsession with aspects of the pandemic that put him on course to be booted out of the Conservative Party. After a series of conspiracy-fuelled anti-vax comments, he tweeted in January 2023 that the Covid-19 vaccination programme was “the biggest crime against humanity since the holocaust,” occasioning widespread outrage. It was the straw that broke the Sunak’s back.

Within hours of the Holocaust claim, former Health Secretary Matt Hancock tweeted “disgusting and dangerous antisemitic, anti-vax, anti-scientific conspiracy theories spouted by a sitting MP this morning are unacceptable and have absolutely no place in our society”.

Bridgen took umbrage at this, arguing that everyone who read the tweet would have no doubt that it was about him, that it was seriously defamatory and untrue, and that its purpose was to cause grievous harm to his reputation. He started a libel action, which eventually found its way to a preliminary court hearing in March this year, when Hancock’s lawyers applied to have the case thrown out.

Although the judge, Mrs Justice Steyn, did strike out parts of Bridgen’s case, she held back on throwing it out entirely, giving him an opportunity to “remedy the deficiencies” of his argument. So the case grinds on, for now. While we are no legal experts, if the case does go to a full hearing, Hancock’s lawyers will likely be allowed to raise the damaging fact that, in another civil case entirely, a High Court judge lambasted Bridgen for having “lied under oath and behaved in an abusive, arrogant and aggressive manner” in court, and to have been “an unreliable and combative witness who tried to conceal his own misconduct”. Ouch!

Without going into intricacies, there is a way that a defamation case can leave both parties worse off than when they started. Briefly, a plaintiff can succeed with their core claim, but be awarded derisory damages and have all or part of legal costs awarded against them – essentially for wasting the court’s time. This leaves the defendant branded a liar or something of the sort, but the plaintiff well out of pocket. (In a famous historical case, the painter James Abbott McNeill Whistler “won” the argument against art critic John Ruskin, but was awarded a farthing – just over one-thousandth of a pound – in damages, and ended up bankrupt.)

Indeed, as we were going to press Mrs Justice Steyn’s court sat again over Bridgen v Hancock for a preliminary costs hearing, where the judge ordered Bridgen to pay £40,300 of Hancock’s legal bills. And this is before the actual defamation case is even heard.

Courtroom dramas

So, unlike in our opening football analogy, it is possible for both sides to take a hammering in a defamation trial, and we may cross our fingers and cling to some small hope that both the disgraced Bridgen and the disgraced Hancock come out of the affair wishing they had never started it.

Bridgen will certainly be crossing his own fingers that his case is more successful than the recent courtroom efforts of his erstwhile Reclaim colleague, cracked actor Laurence Fox, who was found to have defamed two people whom he outrageously accused of being paedophiles, while also failing in bringing a countersuit over the same people describing him as a racist. Fox ache!

Meanwhile, Bridgen has been taking a larruping in the media from his second wife, Serbian opera singer Nevena Pavlovic, in what appears to be the opening salvo of a divorce battle. Pavlovic says that her husband has been captured by a vaccine conspiracy cult, which is using him as a foot soldier.

Matters came to a head, apparently, when Bridgen ignored their five-year-old son’s bout of ill health in order to go to Sweden to speak at an event hosted by potty anti-vax US presidential candidate Robert F Kennedy Jr. When the boy’s condition worsened and he had to be admitted to hospital, Pavlovic says she phoned Bridgen and pleaded with him to come home – but he told her that he was too busy saving the world. The British press lapped it up – and who can blame them?

This article first appeared in the Spring 2024 issue of Searchlight

One response on “A Bridgen of sighs

  1. Furubotnik

    Describing Bridgen as anti-vax is either dishonest or ignorant, he is not against inoculations as such but will be remembered as the one brave soul in parliament who dared to speak against the mRNA-injections and call for research into the many deaths and injuries that followed them.

    Do Searchlight really claim that those injections are safe and effective?