WALTER CRONXITE on the ins and outs of the latest council “non-reshuffles”, and how the the spectre of #WadGate and others’ past crimes still stalk the Town Hall’s corridors of (not much) power
“They used to say that being attacked in the House of Commons by Geoffrey Howe was like being savaged by a dead sheep,” one senior Croydon Labour figure said this week, before adding with a laugh: “Croydon Tories’ Town Hall front bench now consists of an entire herd of dozing sheep.”
The councillor’s uncomplimentary commentary of the opposition Conservative group followed the Tories’ election of Jason Cummings as their new deputy leader, as veteran councillor Dudley Mead stepped down, prior to retiring from his council seat at the local elections in 2018.
“Had they elected Mike Fisher, he could have made things difficult for us in the next two years. Fisher’s an accomplished politician. But Cummings alongside Tim Pollard and Sara Bashford? They’d make an accountants’ convention seem dynamic.”
That’s not a million miles from the reactions of some local members of the Conservative Party, too. But the Tory members have also spotted that Croydon Central MP Gavin Barwell now has two of his state-funded parliamentary assistants – Cummings and Sara Bashford – safely installed as deputy leaders of his local Town Hall group, an over-weaning influence which is sure to be used towards his own political manoeuvering.
Local newspaper reports focused on the controversy of the former Tory leader, Fisher, trying to make a comeback to frontline council politics less than two years after he was forced from his position over #WadGate – when the councillor for Shirley was exposed as having banked an extra £11,000-worth of council “allowances” without bothering to tell anyone.
All perfectly legal, of course, but all done in a sly, under-hand manner, all carried out with the knowledge of senior council officials, and supported, too, by senior Tory councillors who also came close to sticking their greedy mitts into the cookie jar.
Croydon’s Tories are clearly very sensitive about the potential adverse publicity over this, especially so since MP Barwell’s recently published election memoir revealed that at least one leading Croydon Conservative figure had wanted to cover-up the council cash scandal.
And there is an element of surprise that Fisher should attempt a comeback so soon after #WadGate – though if the former council leader had money problems when he was on £53,000 a year, then that situation won’t have got any better for former civil servant Fisher now that he’s on the basic backbencher’s allowance of £11,000. A quick return to the front bench would have more than doubled that income stream.
Truth is, Fisher’s political career is finished.
Having applications to stand as a parliamentary candidate rejected by two south London constituencies, including not even making the shortlist for Croydon South, where his own cabinet colleagues were on the selection panel, ought to be a clear enough message. #WadGate will always undermine any ambitions which Fisher might retain.
Some Croydon Tories realise that Fisher is “damaged goods”. But not enough of them, it would seem, which is why Pollard has been so reluctant to share publicly who it was who backed Fisher’s nomination for the deputy leadership. The Tories have also refused to reveal the identity of an embarrassed third candidate, thought to be a member of Pollard’s shadow cabinet, who was eliminated in the first round of voting, when Fisher managed to get within a single vote of Cummings.
Clearly, around a dozen members of the rump of Tory councillors at Croydon Town Hall have yet to twig how deeply damaging #WadGate is to them, as well as Fisher, and still retain a deep loyalty to their former leader.
Might one of these be Steve O’Connell?
Labelled by the Daily Mail, no less, as Britain’s most overpaid local councillor (or something like that) when he was trousering £118,000 per year in public cash from Croydon Town Hall and City Hall as an Assembly Member, O’Connell was one of those who nearly joined Fisher two years ago in secretly claiming back-payments on allowances.
If O’Connell was discovered to have forgiven his greedy old mate for #WadGate and to have backed his return to the Tory front bench, how might those dodgy dealings have played out if they emerged right in the middle of the current London election campaign? After all, things might be close: O’Connell has been telling Tory meetings that he might retain the Sutton and Croydon Assembly seat he has held since 2008, but only by as few as 1,000 votes.
Terry and June ride off into the sunset
What this week’s meetings of our local politicians represent is the end of an era at Croydon Town Hall, which is about to lose nearly 120 years’ worth of experience with the (voluntary) retirement of at least four councillors at the next election.
The Tories are to lose the Terry and June of Croydon politics in Dudley and Margaret Mead. Dudley, councillor for Selsdon and Ballards, has been elected to the Town Hall since 1980.
In that time, his positions with the powerful landowners the Whitgift Foundation (like the last two Croydon Central MPs, Mead is a Trinity old boy; the old school ties that bind do so extremely tightly in Croydon) and on the board at the Fairfield Halls have cemented his role in to the local Establishment. He has also held a range of positions within the Tory group, including a spell as leader.
Mead is stepping down as deputy and as the Tories’ spokesman on housing, and Pollard will announce his replacement for that post at May’s council annual meeting.
Margaret Mead is a relative novice in comparison with her husband, having only been a councillor for a mere 26 years so far. A councillor for Heathfield (the same ward as Jason Cummings), she too is stepping back from the shadow cabinet, where she has long-held the social services brief.
Pollard paid tribute to both, referring to their “decades of service to the people of Croydon”, and saying that “Margaret has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the ins and outs of social care and health and she will be greatly missed from our front bench”. It is hard to disagree with that when you see the vacuousness and puerility of some of the new generation of Tory councillors who are following them.
Two likely retirements among the Labour group will provide the cover for Tony Newman, the leader of the council, to have a long overdue reshuffle of his own “top team”, with which to try to extricate himself from what has emerged to be a clusterfuck of misjudgements and poor appointments when he took over control of the Town Hall in 2014.
“We’re not having a reshuffle,” one Labour councillor said this week, apparently oblivious to the need for some re-arranging of the deckchairs after Matthew Kyeremeh was dumped by the Labour Party over his very messy divorce. Councillor Kyeremeh has refused to resign from his Thornton Heath council seat, and is contesting his divorce judgement, too, but his role as Labour’s cabinet deputy for “communities, safety and justice” (oh, the irony) does have to be allocated to someone else.
But Kyeremeh’s original appointment as a cabinet deputy might not be the only decision from 2014 which Newman has a chance to put right now.
One other move in the offing in the Labour cabinet appears to be that of Toni Letts, the Selhurst councillor, who is understood to be giving up her economic redevelopment cabinet brief in preference to being deputy Mayor for the next 12 months, so that she might spend her final year – 2017-2018 – on the council as Mayor.
Letts has been a Labour councillor since 1986.
Letts, like Dudley Mead, has been a long-standing member of the board of the Whitgift Foundation, a position which she refused to resign even though her cabinet brief has direct influence over the massive redevelopment of the Foundation’s property in and around the Whitgift Centre. Newman, of course, could have avoided appointing someone with such a potential conflict of interests, but that issue of openness and transparency seemed to be beyond the Labour leader…
Also thought to be retiring as a councillor at the next local election is Pat Ryan, who has been on the council since 1992. Councillor Ryan, who lost his role as Labour chief whip a year ago and has since spent too long at council meetings watching football on the telly, has a devoted following among residents in Upper Norwood ward. “The one thing you could always say about Pat is that if you contacted him about a problem in the ward, he would get something done about it immediately,” Inside Croydon‘s loyal reader said. “There’s not many councillors you can say that about.
“And at least when Pat talks about supporting Upper Norwood Library as a proper library, with professional library staff, you know he means it, and he doesn’t vote for scrapping a manifesto commitment at private Labour meetings,” they said.
With Letts moving on, Newman is believed to favour shuffling one of his closest political allies, Mark Watson, into the crucial redevelopment brief. “The group wants someone in the cabinet who doesn’t just say what Jo Negrini tells them to say,” was what a Town Hall insider said this week, referring to Negrini, the all-powerful council official, the executive director for “Place”.
With the Compulsory Purchase Order for the site of the £1 billion Westfield shopping supermall seemingly stalled, even if only temporarily, and the Negrini-led council debacles over the £3 million Boxpark loan and mishandling of the College Green and Fairfield presentations, Newman’s Labour group is in desperate need of someone to take firm charge of this brief and reduce the volume of shit that keeps being thrown into the fan.
Watson being transferred from his current post may also suit Newman, who was embarrassed this week with a report in Private Eye which highlighted Watson’s past criminal prosecution for fraud – a spent conviction, but hardly the best qualification for the council cabinet member supposedly responsible for “justice”.
Newman’s command of his cabinet appointments, however, could still leave him open to attack from within, as well as outside, the Labour group.
Tipped to take over from Watson for communities, safety and justice is rising star Hamida Ali. But this would leave the poor residents of Woodside even worse served by their three Labour councillors – Ali, Newman and chair of the planning committee, Paul Scott – than they are currently, with their council representatives accused of rarely being available for seemingly mundane ward matters.
And there is a persistent rumour that Newman may want to move “Clean and Green” Stuart Collins on from his job in charge of T-shirts and slogans, in order to have a fresh approach to the fly-tipping “epidemic”, and a firmer hand with contractors Veolia. The problem for Newman there, though, was put this way by another councillor: “How do you manage to shift one of your deputy leaders from their cabinet post without making it look like you’ve sacked them?”
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