Oxford Union President Ben Sullivan avoided a vote of no confidence on Thursday evening after members voted to withdraw the motion.
After a three-hour debate, Union member Inigo Lapwood proposed to cancel the motion of no confidence on grounds that “whichever way people voted would have had a non-negligible effect on the ongoing criminal proceeding”. The motion not to vote passed 254 to 101.
The original motion “This House has no confidence in the president, Benjamin Sullivan, Christ Church” was posted in the Union last Thursday, 15th May, and was signed by over 30 members. This came in response to Sullivan’s arrest on 7th May on suspicion of rape and attempted rape.
Aleksy Gaj, who proposed the motion of no confidence, stood first to address the packed chamber. Gaj told the House, “Tonight, my speech is not a comment on the allegations made against Mr Sullivan. It is not to pervert the course of justice in the British legal system.
“This is a sad time for Mr Sullivan and his friends, I agree. But this is no basis to be running the Union as its figurehead and president,” he concluded.
The heated debate that followed saw a range of issues raised, including worries about affecting Sullivan’s court case and faltering public opinion of the Union.
The heated debate that followed Gaj’s opening remarks saw a range of issues raised, including worries about affecting Sullivan’s court case and faltering public opinion of the Union. At one point, Union member Joe Miles declared, “We are making national media for all the wrong reasons.”
Speaking after the debate, Barnaby Raine condemned Sullivan’s conduct, “I absolutely want to be as clear as it is possible to be: Ben Sullivan is innocent until he is proven guilty. Nobody has ever denied that, and he should stop implying to the press that anyone is denying that, because nobody is.
“If as a society you take rape seriously as a crime, then these are the things you don’t do: you don’t when allegations are made, try to use Union money to shut up the press from reporting about those allegations without even telling the members that you are doing it; you don’t have that discussion in secret, in Camera, not on the record so no one knows what’s it’s about, and when someone asks for the minutes of the meeting tell them the minutes aren’t available… You don’t refuse to stand aside without prejudice as the Secretary General of Interpol told you to do; you don’t just dismiss it and carry on as normal.”
If you do take rape seriously, the moment that allegations are made – at least, the moment you are arrested – you step aside until you have proven yourself innocent. I wish Ben Sullivan had done that. If he’d done that we wouldn’t be here today, there wouldn’t be any trouble, and people wouldn’t be crying outside this Union chamber tonight.”
Speaking about the allegations of sexual assault against Sullivan, one student present at the debate commented, “I have suffered in the past; I know what it is like. But that doesn’t mean I don’t believe someone should be judged before they go to court.”
Inigo Lapwood, who proposed the motion to drop the no-confidence vote under Rule 43 d) ii), also emphasised the need to avoid using the Union as a courtroom.
“I would not risk having an innocent man declared guilty, or a guilty man evade justice due to Union bullshit. Rape allegations are too serious to be hijacked and wielded as a weapon for student political agendas,” Lapwood stated.
Towards the end of the debate there was widespread confusion over Lapwood’s secondary motion. Josh Atkinson, a member from St Benet’s and last term’s Returning Officer explained, “Tonight a lengthy debate was had on the motion of No confidence which culminated in a ‘leave of the house’ deciding whether the motion should be withdrawn or not.
“Under Rule 43 d) ii), a motion once put can only be withdrawn by ‘leave of the house’; this is what happened. After Inigo’s proposal and the reception it received from the house, the chair assessed that the house may have wanted the motion withdrawn and thus let the house decided. The house decided to withdrawn the motion and thus remain silent due to the issue being so divisive.”
Sullivan did not attend the debate due to fear of contempt of court. A prepared statement was read during the debate on his behalf by the Chair, former Secretary Alex Trafford.
“The proposition will of course note that this debate has nothing to do with the allegations against me. However, I think it will be difficult to divorce my suitability to hold my office from the validity of the allegations against me. As I have said before, if I am charged, I will resign.”
“But passing a vote of no confidence at a time when I am not even able to defend myself would, I believe, go against everything the greater society stands for,” Sullivan’s statement read.
Speaking immediately after the debate, Sullivan told Cherwell, “I am pleased that the House has decided to defer to the appropriate procedures of the criminal justice system.”
Although the President did not attend the debate, members reported seeing Sullivan standing outside the Union as members exited the chamber.
Aliya Yule, a student at the debate, told Cherwell, “Ben Sullivan said that his presence could possibly prejudice a court and he was told not to be here. He was here, he was standing outside when it happened. He was watching everyone come out, he was hugging his friends as they voted for the motion to be removed.
“It created an incredibly intimidating atmosphere, it was unbelievably insensitive to survivors of sexual assault, many of whom were in the chamber some of whom voiced their experiences and it further shows how the Union and Ben do not take these rape allegations seriously.”
Sullivan rejected these allegations, commenting, “I was outside soon after the vote speaking to some of my close friends. I am not sure how this constituted an intimidating atmosphere, especially given that the vote had already taken place. I also thought it odd that Barnaby Raine came up to me in the courtyard and demanded that I leave.”
A motion to bring in a Re-Open Nominations candidate at Union elections had been scheduled to be debated after the no-confidence motion. However under Rule 47 e) iii), 150 members have to vote on a rules change and after the end of the no confidence too few members were left in the chamber for a vote to be held.
Speaking to Cherwell, Josh Atkinson, a former RO and proposer of the RON motion, said, “I am saddened that the rules change introducing RON could not be passed. I believe that the Union needs this huge electoral reform and the rules change was written very well to bring it.”
He continued, “I am however annoyed that Standing Committee didn’t propose the rule so that it could be brought sooner, I believe this is due to many of its current members wanting to benefit from unopposed elections. I hope that the members get a choice of candidates in the next election with which they are happy and I will bring this motion again in the near future in the hope that, with fewer issues surrounding the Union, we can finally sort out our electoral process.”
The motion will be discussed at a future meeting but will not be in place during this term’s elections.
For a detailed account of the evening’s debate, see Cherwell’s live-tweets.