Blowing the whistle on Smearsgate

Phillip Sycamore's Law Society presidential campaign shot itself in the foot last week following leaked minutes of a meeting of his supporters. WITH friends like Simon Baker, it seems, who needs enemies. Baker, a Law Society council member and chair of its education and training committee, has been nursing a long-cherished ambition to silence his political rival Martin Mears.

Instead, the leaking of minutes drawn up by Baker implicating Sycamore in an alleged dirty tricks campaign has left Mears crowing louder than ever.

As the campaign manager of Phillip Sycamore's council members support group, Baker was supposed to spearhead Sycamore's election campaign. But over the past week, his colleagues have been desperate to distance themselves from Baker and the now-notorious minutes of one of their meetings.

“They are not minutes, they are notes prepared by Simon Baker in his own style,” said Sycamore of the seven-page campaign document. “They perhaps reflect an overreaction to the real damage which Baker has seen done to the Law Society by Mears.”

The clear message emanating from members of Sycamore's council group is that Baker's anger at the way Mears has politicised the Law Society developed into personal hatred of him which clouded Baker's judgement.

The only thing Baker's colleagues appear to accept about the minutes is that they describe a meeting which took place on 3 February at the London offices of Edge & Ellison, where John Aucott, a member of the group, is managing partner.

The minutes record that Baker, John Appleby, a member of the society's policy committee, Richard Hegarty, chair of the society's property and commercial services committee, policy committee member Peter Williamson, Sycamore and his running candidate, deputy vice-president and society treasurer Michael Mathews were all at the meeting.

Absent, but part of the group, according to the minutes, were Lucy Winskell, former chair of the Young Solicitors Group, Aucott, David McIntosh, senior partner of Davies Arnold Cooper, and Michael Napier, senior partner of Irwin Mitchell.

Despite Sycamore's claims, Baker's “notes” bear all the hallmarks of minutes. They follow a numbered agenda, they record what the meeting allegedly agreed and they list the names of the people charged with acting on the decisions. They close by noting the date and time of the next meeting.

Many of the suggestions discussed at the meeting are entirely sensible. But others read more like a Boy's Own annual. There are proposals: to “plant” a question at a council meeting to “extract” how much the Law Society was funding Caterpillar, the magazine produced by Mears attacking Chancery Lane; that David McIntosh should be the “leader” of a negative campaign; that council meetings have to be “managed” to control the amount of “debate about bad news”; to give a “formal rebuke” to Robert Sayer for allegedly leaking documents; and to get Law Society president and council chair Tony Girling to “close down” the controversial High Street Starter Kit (HSSK) issue.

But by far the most controversial suggestion of all was the idea, put forward by Baker himself, that private detectives should gather information on Mears, his then running mate Robert Sayer and council member David Keating. According to Sycamore, the idea was “dismissed out of hand”. And Mathews added: “There are lots of off-the-wall ideas at these meetings. It does not mean they are taken up.”

But if the suggestion of enquiry agents was dismissed, why does Baker write in the minutes that “it was agreed” that the issue should be discussed with two members of the public relations firm Lowe Bell Communications?

There is a similar discrepancy between what the minutes say about McIntosh, and what McIntosh claims actually happened. The minutes record the meeting agreeing he should lead a negative campaign against Mears. But, according to McIntosh he had written to the group four days earlier opposing the idea. “I emphasised that they should remain above negative campaigning and run a positive manifesto,” he said.

When he was asked about the minutes on the day they were leaked, Baker said: “You are making assumptions about these minutes that you are not entitled to do.” He agreed many of the ideas were dismissed, including controlling the amount of debate on the council about bad news, and said: “I don't accept for a minute that there was any manipulation of council business.”

Baker made the distinction between manipulating council meetings, which he said did not take place, and managing them. He said it was impossible to retain a completely balanced position in council meetings when Mears was using them to attack the Law Society.

Sycamore and others at the meeting also denied suggestions of manipulation. Williamson said what they were aiming to do was make sure the bad news was balanced with the good. And Girling, who has publicly endorsed Sycamore as his successor, said he was never asked to rebuke Sayer or close down the HSSK issue by anyone in the group. And pointing to the Mears-produced satirical magazine Caterpillar, he said acidly: “It is a bit rich for my friend Martin to complain so bitterly.”

It is a view which is manifest from the survey conducted by The Lawyer of the Law Society Council. Many at the meeting privately said they were simply seeking a way to stop Mears “grandstanding” at the council meetings and dominating debate. While they said none of the controversial suggestions raised at the meeting were followed up, further campaign meetings did discuss how to deal with Mears.

“The character of Mears has been discussed many times,” said Aucott, the most bullish member of the group. “I think tactics to eliminate someone like that are legitimate.”

Aucott's view is backed up to varying degrees by others in the council members support group who, while they do not share Baker's personal enmity towards Mears, said it was time to start fighting fire with fire. Instead, they ended up getting their fingers burnt.