Office bombs, angry morning phone calls and misbehaving councillors - tales from a former Peterborough council leader

During his 44 years as a councillor in Peterborough, John Holdich has encountered some colourful characters and enjoyed (perhaps endured) some interesting moments.

By Joel Lamy
Saturday, 22nd May 2021, 5:22 pm

In a lengthy interview with the Peterborough Telegraph, the former Conservative leader of the city council shared some of his memories - including how he once silenced a barracking crowd during a budget debate - as well as his thoughts on behaviour in public life and allegations of electoral fraud taking place in Peterborough.

Brian Mawhinney - former MP in Peterborough and government minister

“I was Brian Mawhinney’s campaign manager for 25 years. When he first came to Peterborough he was a very religious man and didn’t drink. And my job during an election campaign was to go into a pub and get a pint of coke and give it to him.

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John Holdich (second from left) with Brian Mawhinney in 1982

“I always remember falling out with him because he used to preach from the pulpit, and in his first election address there were seven pictures of him preaching from a pulpit.

“I said ‘you can’t do that, mate’. He said ‘I can’t give up my religion!’

“I said ‘you don’t have to, but you can’t shove it down people’s throats’.

“We had some interesting conversations, and when he was Irish minister we had a bomb at the offices in Dogsthorpe Road. And he said to me ‘get down there, keep it under wraps and don’t let anybody know it’s happening’.

“So I went down there and I couldn’t get anywhere near the bloody place. They had fire engines and police cars.

“He turns up at five o’clock and tears me off a strip - ‘I told you I didn’t want anybody to know. Everybody’s outside’.

“I said ‘you could only get near the place because you’ve got a ministerial car and you drove through it. I couldn’t, my car’s parked a mile away’.

“We had a good relationship. I also have a good relationship with Shailesh (Vara, Lord Mawhinney’s successor as MP for North West Cambridgeshire).

“I had, believe it or not, a good relationship with (former MP for Peterborough, Stewart) Jackson. It was a bit fiery at times, but I think we had a mutual respect for one another because he used to shoot from the hip.”

Neville Sanders - former city council leader

Early morning phone calls were a regular occurrence when Mr Holdich was in Mr Sanders’ Cabinet, “and they weren’t very pleasant,” he recalled.

“One morning he had a go at me - and I was in bed still because it was very early - and he said ‘you married beneath yourself’.

“My wife heard that and she wasn’t very happy about it!

“I used to get those calls early in the morning. He heard something and used to rant at me. I learnt to let him cool down, ring him back at nine and say ‘this is the truth to the matter, Neville’.

“My wife, unbeknown to me, decided she was going to talk to him. She got in touch with him and he said ‘he’s sent a woman to do a man’s job’.

“She gave him a few choice words and he said ‘I’ll send you some flowers’.

“She said ‘if you do they’ll come back through your letterbox petal by petal’.”

Marco Cereste - former council leader and current cabinet member

“He was an inspirational leader in many ways but he’d come out with his water taxis and ski lifts coming from the station into the city centre and all the rest of it.

“It got people talking, but it got him ridiculed as well.

“I always remember this group of officers when I was deputy leader asked to speak to us. They said they had 360 projects because he came up with a different one every bloody day, probably three or four a day.

“They said ‘sir, we need to talk to you. We’ve got all these projects - we believe these six are the most important and most effective and we need to concentrate on them this year’.

“He wanted them all doing, then he came up with a few more. He said ‘what do you think?’

“I said ‘I think they’re right’. He said ‘what do you mean you think they’re right?’

“I said ‘they can’t do it all, mate. They haven’t got enough staff or the expertise to do it all. The ambition’s there, but we’re not delivering because you’re spending all your time doing this. Let’s deliver something’.

“I think I convinced him.”

Budget meeting at Ken Stimpson Community School

“There were 86 people in the room which was unusual for a budget meeting. I think they thought their library was under threat.

“Poor old David Seaton was trying to present his budget and they were giving him a hard time saying ‘you’ve not built this in Queensgate and you’ve not done this, that or the other’.

“They were having a right go, and someone said ‘let Holdich have a go’.

“So I went up and said ‘Mrs Thatcher was right, you’re a bloody load of whingers’.

“They said ‘why have the new houses or new shops at Queensgate not been built? It’s your bloody fault’.

“I said ‘because 22 per cent of everything you buy in Peterborough is online’. I spoke for 20 minutes apparently and got a standing ovation at the end.”

One man, however, was still not pleased and kept having a go at Mr Holdich.

He recalled: “This old dear got up, dressed like the old dear in Last of the Summer Wine with a long knitted coat on and beanie hat. I thought she was coming over to whack me, but she went over to him and said ‘you ought to shut up because he’s right’.

“I thought ‘why haven’t I done that as a politician before?’”

Behaviour at council meetings

“It does concern me. Councillors think they are elected to represent their ward, and that’s true. But they are representatives of the city as a whole and I’m afraid one or two don’t understand that. They think they are there to slag each other off.

“I’ve had several conversations with one or two Labour councillors who said ‘we’re not here to help, John, we’re here to criticise’. That doesn’t get anyone anywhere, does it.

“If I’ve got a regret, it’s that the parties don’t work (with each other) and their behaviour towards one another is not good.”

Electoral fraud

“Electoral fraud I think has been quite relevant in Peterborough, but nobody has been able to prove it.

“I know when I first stood in 1977 in that patch I witnessed it.

“I hope it’s less than it was - we’ve got a lot of things in place now. But I’m afraid people always find a way around these things.”