TOWN HALL SKETCH: Finally, reluctantly, Croydon’s council leader agrees to stand down. But, as STEVEN DOWNES reports, Tony Newman might hang around for a while yet, ‘like a fart in a lift’
It was barely 10 minutes in, and this was the first scheduled full meeting of the council to be held since July, but they might have stopped it there and then.
The main business of the evening had been announced and nothing else really mattered: Tony Newman is standing down as council leader.
While there had been speculation that the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government might insist on the Labour-run leader’s resignation as a condition for allowing a multi-million-pound bail-out for the cash-strapped council, Inside Croydon understands that Newman’s resignation has come because of a loss of confidence from within his own party.
Labour headquarters has insisted that Newman should stand down, according to sources, “in the best interests of the party”.
What’s more, Newman may not be the last cabinet-level casualty, as his administration spirals into ever-deeper crisis and controversy.
“Croydon under Newman, Butler and Scott is considered ‘toxic for the brand’,” said one source. “HQ view them as a total liability.
“There’s been complaints coming in about the mishandling of candidate selections, the scandal over the councillor who beat up his girlfriend, and questions about the handling of party funds. Now, there’s not a week goes by without the financial situation at the council getting worse.”
Of Newman’s leadership team, only the innocuous and ineffectual Stuart Collins may survive, as moves are made by Labour at regional level to ensure the party retains control of the Town Hall at the 2022 local elections. Newman’s six-year reign will end in failure on a political as well as an administrative level.
“Butler is his formal deputy leader,” said another source who has worked closely with Croydon’s Labour leadership. “It would be astounding if she didn’t go.”
Newman did try to suggest that he had intended to stand down of his own volition next year, like some grand plan, though that was disingenuous in the extreme.
It contradicts his previous publicly expressed desire to be Labour’s candidate in a vote for a democratically-elected mayor – “Bring it on!”, he had said. Newman’s enthusiasm for such a contest only evaporated once he discovered that he had lost support among his councillor colleagues, who realised long before that Newman as candidate for Mayor would be an electoral disaster.
Even as recently as last Wednesday, at an internal Labour group meeting, Newman had told councillors that, if they had a problem with him as leader, they should organise a rival candidate to stand against him next May.
Now, they might get a chance to select a replacement in weeks, rather than months.
But as with any announcement made by Newman, he lacked clarity, was imprecise and light on detail.
“Nobody seems to know anything about the reasons for Tony’s snap announcement,” one Labour councillor told Inside Croydon.
“There was no notification to the Labour group beforehand. But then Tony stopped telling the Labour group what his thinking was on important decisions a long time ago.”
Newman’s departure thus follows Jo “Negreedy” Negrini, his disastrous choice as council chief executive, and Simon Hall, his long-term colleague and cabinet front-bencher on finance.
But while Hall went on Friday with immediate effect, Newman was unclear about when he would stand down officially. With the borough confronted by the coronavirus pandemic’s “second wave” and with the council’s finances in a tail-spin, this should have been a key piece of information.
Newman wasn’t telling. As ever, he put himself and his party ahead of the broader interests of the borough.
In a short-tempered response to opposition leader Jason Perry, Newman hinted at the external forces at work in his making the decision. “This is internal Labour Party business, and not yours,” he told Perry.
So Newman could be an unwelcome presence for some time yet, like a fart in a lift.
Newman made his announcement early in the virtual council meeting, not long before Prime Minister Boris Johnson was on television addressing the nation on the new, three-phase lockdown procedures to counter covid-19.
Newman had spent much of the day in briefings to London council leaders about how the capital will be affected, and it seems likely that the timing of his departure will be subject to further external considerations. “Events, dear boy. Events,” as Harold Macmillan was supposed to have said.
Newman hinted that the election of his successor might be done promptly, as he suggested that it would be the new council leader who would oversee the final preparations of the bid to the government for a bail-out package to help plug the covid-sized hole in this year’s council budget.
The bid for a “Capitalisation Direction”, asking MHCLG for permission to use £22million from capital funds, is due to be submitted next month.
“I think as we make that bid, it is vital that Croydon comes together,” Newman said.
“One of the things that can accelerate that dramatically is if I bring forward an announcement I was going to make next year. I intend to stand down as leader of the council and allow a new person to propose themselves.
“It will allow us the very best chance of securing the settlement from MHCLG and someone to take over for the next three or four years,” Newman said, somewhat pre-judging what the Croydon public might decide in the polling booths in May 2022.
Newman gave some substance to the suggestion that others might soon be following him, when later in the meeting, talking about the Tory government’s latest bat-shit crazy proposals to allow profit-hungry developers to by-pass any kind of planning process, he said, “Even Chris Philp will be missing having Paul Scott in charge of planning in a year.”
The whole episode demonstrated, though, quite how unsatisfactory the virtual Town Hall meetings can be. There were no gasps of astonishment or cheers to be heard from opposition (or Labour backbenchers), and observers of the meeting were even denied the opportunity to study Newman’s own reaction once he had delivered his little speech.
Newman turned off his camera, to sit, undisturbed, in solitary reflection for the next quarter of an hour, as one of his front bench colleagues, Stuart King, calmly waded through a welter of questions from the public about road closures and Low Traffic Neighbourhoods in Upper Norwood. There was a strong sense, though, as King quietly delivered his prepared responses that even he was somewhat distracted from the topic at hand.
Tributes, such as they were, dripped in.
Sarah Jones, the MP for Croydon Central, tweeted that “as a friend and colleague”, she was “proud to have worked with you for many years”. Newman, Jones said, was, “A true public servant in very difficult times.”
“Lord” Gavin Barwell, Jones’s Conservative predecessor in Croydon Central, tweeted in reply to Newman’s announcement that he was standing down that, “I disagree with some of @CllrTony policies and I think this is the right decision, but he cares deeply for our town and I thank him for the service he has given it.” Just “some” of Newman’s policies, Gav?
The six-month silence from Steve Reed OBE over the state of Croydon Council’s finances has been very suspicious. As well as representing the area, the MP for Croydon North is, after all, Labour’s parliamentary spokesman on local government. The longer it went on, Reed’s unwillingness to be associated in any way with this Newman-made disaster was all the more damning. Some suggested that Reed may have carried some influence over Newman’s fate within the party.
When it came to it last night, an hour after the council leader announced his departure, Reed finally ended his silence to detail just a single achievement by Newman after six years in charge of the Town Hall.
Meanwhile, the cuts continue, with 400 council jobs to go. For their part, those workers who remain at the council despite the mistakes made by Newman, Hall and Negrini, were less charitable.
“All these politicians and directors resigning,” one said, “don’t worry – we’ll stick around to mop up your mess. We’ll just be doing it with less resources, with valued colleagues gone and with the added bonus of a second wave of coronavirus.”
The fart in the lift might go in a week or so, but the stink is likely to remain for some time to come.
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