Nick Clegg, soon to be the ex-Deputy Prime Minister and possibly also soon-to-be an ex-MP and ex-leader of the Liberal Democrats, was forced to abandon a carefully stage-managed photo-op outside St Helier Hospital in Sutton this afternoon, when protestors from the Keep Our St Helier campaign and the Stop the Incinerator Campaign hijacked the event.
Clegg’s visit lasted barely five minutes, before he was whisked away in his official BMW, clutching, according to the protesters, one of the anti-incinerator leaflets.
LibDem-controlled Sutton Council has given planning permission for a waste incineration plant at Beddington Lane – close to the borough boundary with Croydon – where Viridor have a £1 billion 25-year contract to burn rubbish from across south-east England with four London boroughs, including Croydon. Sutton has strenuously fought against all protests and a legal challenge that has gone all the way to the High Court.
Sutton has remained staunchly LibDem, despite the party’s crash in the polls since they joined the Conservative-led coalition: the LibDems retained control of Sutton Council at last year’s Town Hall elections and they have Paul Burstow and Tom Brake defending parliamentary seats at the General Election.
It was to support Brake’s campaign that Clegg was at St Helier, ironically a hospital which had extra funding for its A&E and maternity departments put in doubt while Burstow was a junior minister at the Department of Health.
St Helier’s Accident & Emergency department has been rated consistently higher than Croydon’s Mayday Hospital, but its future under the ConDems has been dogged by doubt and uncertainty. Were it forced to close, there is little doubt that some of the demand for its services would end up at Mayday.
Tonight, the BBC was reporting that Epsom and St Helier hospitals could close, to be replaced by a single “super-hospital” in Sutton.
According to an eye witness, by noon today on the playing fields opposite the hospital, there had formed up two distinctive groups developing: those toting the orange LibDem banners, and protestors against NHS cuts and incinerators.
When Clegg arrived – late – the groups did get quite close together, as the amateur footage below shows. It seemed to remain quite civilised – you can even hear one slightly terse LibDem asking an incinerator protestor, “Why do you have to keep shouting?” After which, the protestor shouted a little bit louder…
According to the anti-incinerator campaigners, they were approached by someone who introduced himself as Nick Clegg’s Chief of Staff, which would be James Mcgrory. He asked what the protest was about and suggested even that Clegg would come over to speak to them after the event. “It was clearly an attempt to ensure the event didn’t turn out to be story about the protestors,” a campaigner told Inside Croydon.
“When Nick Clegg arrived it, was utter mayhem. The LibDem supporters attempted to encircle Clegg and Brake. Some of our group were pushed by their security. Clegg said very few words and it was just after his attempt to say a few audible words that his smart-suited team went up to one of our campaigners to find out more about our campaign. LibDem councillor Nick Mattey also spoke to them.”
It is suggested that it was Mattey who passed on the Stop the Incinerator leaflet to Clegg.
Shasha Khan, the Green Party candidate in Croydon North who has taken the lead on the legal challenge for the Stop the Incinerator Campaign, said, “As protests go, it was a successful one. A number of us ended up having frank conversations with LibDem councillors, a number of national media outlets spoke to us and even Nick Clegg left with a Stop the Incinerator leaflet.”
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