EXCLUSIVE: Our political editor, WALTER CRONXITE, says that the next local election campaign has just begun
Croydon’s Conservatives have started a search for a new Town Hall leader after Tim Pollard, who has been in the job since 2014, announced that he is stepping down.
In what he described as “a personal statement”, the councillor for Sanderstead said last night that he had made the decision, “with great regret” because of a change in family circumstances involving care arrangements for elderly family members living in the West Country which “make a prominent leadership position too difficult to sustain”.
Pollard and his wife, Helen, who represents Selsdon and Addington Village ward on the council, intend to continue as councillors.
But there was some also suggestion from Katharine Street sources that the move had been prompted by growing rumblings of discontent among councillors and Tory supporters at the leader’s largely ineffectual opposition, even when faced with Labour’s crisis-ridden and failing administration at the Town Hall.
Pollard says he will stay on until the autumn, when conditions related to the covid-19 pandemic should have eased enough to allow for a real meeting of the Croydon Tories’ group. The timing may be seen as giving a new leadership team a decent run-up to the May 2022 Town Hall elections, when the Conservatives will hope to prise back control of the council from Labour.
Pollard, who has been a councillor since 2002, told the borough’s other 28 Conservative councillors of his decision during a remote meeting held on Tuesday night.
Inside Croydon understands that Conservative Party members in Croydon have yet to be informed of Pollard’s resignation.
In his statement, Pollard wrote, “Last night I briefed the Conservative group on Croydon Council about changes in my family circumstance which have led me, with great regret, to conclude that I must step down as the local Conservative leader this autumn.
“My wife, Cllr Helen Pollard, and I both have parents in the West Country who now need greater support from us than they have before. The coronavirus pandemic has forced us to consider more deeply how we can fulfil our family obligations as well as our local commitments.
“This is inevitably going to result in us spending more time away from Croydon than we have been accustomed to, and as a result I have concluded that I must step back from the group leadership position I have been honoured to have held for the last six years.
“Our family commitments will not prevent us carrying out our ward obligations and continuing to campaign on behalf of local residents, but they do make a prominent leadership position too difficult to sustain.
“It is very much my intention to support the new leader when they are elected and to do everything I can to secure a win at the local election.
“At present it would be very difficult to arrange a ballot for the election of a new leader, because of the prevailing social distancing regulations.
“As a consequence I will not formally tender my resignation until August, to be effective from the end of that month, enabling an election for leader, and deputy leader(s), to be held on September 1.
“We hope that this will be in the form of a physical meeting of all group members, but whatever happens it seems likely that any restrictions will be less onerous than they are now.
“It has been a huge honour and privilege to serve as the Conservative group leader for almost six years and I would like to thank all of my colleagues for all their help and support over those years,” Pollard said.
The idea that Pollard standing down gives the local Tories a chance to re-set ahead of the 2022 elections is not without its difficulties.
“They used to say that an attack in the Commons from Geoffrey Howe was ‘like being savaged by a dead sheep’,” a local Tory source said. “You got the same impression whenever Tim stood up to speak at the Town Hall.
“There have been grumblings about lacklustre performance for ages. Faced with a disaster of a council, with the serious failures over children’s services, the Westfield disaster, the shambles over the Fairfield Halls, the billion pounds of debt and the busted budget, and Tim’s barely laid a glove on them. Tony Newman’s cabinet has been given a free ride for too long.
“Now the problem is in the calibre of candidates to take over.”
The obvious contenders seem unlikely to inspire much prospect for a radical overhaul of the tired-looking Croydon Conservatives front bench. A measure of that was shown when local party members were given the opportunity to select a candidate to replace Steve O’Connell as the area’s London Assembly candidate: offered the choice, they opted for a Tory councillor from… Sutton.
Croydon Tories’ biggest move in the past couple of years under Pollard has been to spend possibly as much as £10,000 of party funds to back the Democratically Elected Mayor for Croydon campaign, something which seems very likely to end in a borough-wide election that any Tory candidate will lose.
The lack of opposition successes over some hugely controversial planning decisions in the Tories’ heartland wards in the south of the borough has prompted criticism of Pollard and one of the likely contenders to succeed him, Jason “Grayson” Perry.
The Tories’ decision during the covid-19 crisis to provide cross-party agreement to allow “virtual” planning meetings which have halved the number of councillors taking part and blocked any real involvement of residents has also been a cause of some anger.
The jostling for position to be the Conservative candidate to be Croydon mayor is liable to be a distraction in the contest to become the Town Hall Tories’ new leader, a race in which current deputy, Jason Cummings, and Mario Creatura may feature alongside Perry.
All three – white, middle-class men – are regarded in some manner as politically “damaged goods”, whether over their failures on the planning committee or, in the case of Cummings and Creatura, because of their close associations with Gavin Barwell.
Creatura, in particular, after his demoralising defeat as parliamentary candidate in Croydon Central at last December’s General Election and his part in attracting the SPAC Nation church into the campaign for the Fairfield ward by-election, may be seen as having an irreparably badly blotted copybook.
Which could see a relative newcomer to the council stake a claim, with Helen Redfern, the group chief whip noted for a series of robust performances in the council chamber, tipped by many for some form of promotion.
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