After spending a couple of hours sitting in the shadow of the Clocktower nursing a half-finished pint of lukewarm Stella, WALTER CRONXITE reports on last night’s meeting which, if it wasn’t the end of the beginning, might be remembered as the beginning of the end
As the weary councillors emerged from the Town Hall, on their not-so-long march to the bar of the Spread Eagle, this was not on a par with the retreat from Moscow, but by the look on their faces it was clear that one latter-day Napoleon had just suffered a stinging defeat.
The weariness among Croydon’s 39-strong group of Labour councillors was not because of the annual meeting they had just endured in the Town Hall chamber, but more to do with the time and energy which they had expended over the previous weeks on the London elections. Often to the exclusion of all else.
A few miles away, at Westminster, the Parliamentary Labour Party was hearing from Sadiq Khan, newly elected as Mayor of London and soon-to-be an ex-MP.
At what will probably be his final PLP meeting for some time, Khan said, “When we win, we can change lives for the better. There is no such thing as glorious defeat.”
And there was no glory in defeat at the Croydon Labour meeting for Mark Watson or his sponsor, council leader Tony “Soprano” Newman, after their failed challenge to unseat Stuart Collins as the group’s deputy leader.
It was the first taste of success for Chelsea season ticket-holder Collins all season, and was achieved by a very narrow margin of no more than four votes, according to councillors as they trudged into the pub.
Once they’d got their own drinks – Soprano was off-key and wasn’t buying last night – a couple of the meeting attendees sidled over and whispered a few well-considered observations.
“Stuart won because his challenger was Mark – from the inner sanctum of Newman’s temple,” one confided. “If someone else had challenged Stuart, someone who was seen to have more distance from the leader’s core clique of Watson and Mr and Mrs Scott, they might have won.”
Another said, “Watch out for Simon Hall or Sean Fitzsimons next time round. Stuart’s far from safe.”
“Mark made a good speech,” offered a third. “But the mood of the room was not as receptive as it might have been.
“He did say something about Inside Croydon, though, and the need to have better presentation and communications. I thought Tony had your editor’s phone number? Doesn’t he call him regularly?”
As Inside Croydon has previously reported, Newman had sought to claim he was not supporting anyone in the deputy leadership contest, but he was trying too hard to appear clever because all those around him realised that, had he wanted to, the leader could have got Watson to withdraw his candidacy at any time. If Watson refused, Newman might have made it known he disapproved of such internal contests at this time. He did not.
The end result is an abortive vote of no confidence in Newman’s cabinet member for “a cleaner, greener Croydon”, which will be exploited to the full by Collins’s opposite number, Phil Thomas, and the Croydon Tories from now until the local elections in May 2018.
And, potentially worse for Newman, his own group has demonstrated that he can no longer rely on buying their loyalty.
Newman, closely advised by the dominating “Mrs Scott”, his other deputy, Alison Butler, plus Watson and Paul Scott, hand-picks his 10 cabinet members and their 10 deputies.
Using oodles of Council Tax-payers’ cash, Newman uses patronage to ensure group loyalty: cabinet members and their deputies receive £32,000 or £10,000 per year extra, on top of their £11,000 basic council allowances, for “special responsibilities”.
That ought to guarantee 20 votes, and an in-built majority on all group decisions.
Yet at last night’s meeting, at least a couple of those cabinet members did not vote with the Newman leadership, and instead backed Collins. And once that happens once…
The other Labour group positions determined last night saw Pat Clouder return as secretary unopposed and John Wentworth, after an expensive year as captain of Denis Thatcher’s favourite golf club, Dulwich and Sydenham, was elected unopposed as group chair. As the election agent for the Lambeth South MP, Wentworth’s positioning may provide some more influence over the council group to Steve Reed OBE.
In the end, Patricia Hay-Justice, who had thrown her hat into three different rings, opted just to put herself forward for chief whip, which was retained by the incumbent, Oliver Lewis. First-term councillor Lewis is “still seen to be wet behind the ears”, according to one older councillor. “Tony likes him. He can mould him.”
Newman is expected to release details of his 2016-2017 cabinet appointments later today.
Napoleon used to insist on surrounding himself with “lucky” generals. Newman may need to get lucky for the long trudge to the next local elections with his revised front bench team.
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