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Opinion: Wars and Rumours of Wars

By Martin Giles

All political parties like to present a front of unity – but it is rarely the complete picture.

Politics attract those that desire power. Those that desire power, to achieve their aim, often scheme and plot, form alliances and make enemies. We should not blame our politicians too much we all do it to some degree, it is part of human behaviour.

Even within a political party with a shared political philosophy, there will be disagreement and the forming of factions. The current time is no exception.

At Westminster, rumours of discontent about the leadership of the Conservative party and the government are in the press every day. But there are signs of a similar battle here in our local politics and not just amongst the Tories.

Of course, it is not a real issue for Guildford’s smaller parties. It is hard to form factions in a political group of only two or three members and while the Guildford Greenbelt Group might have views on a range of policies, they are essentially, in most people’s eyes, and as their name implies, a single issue party.

In the biggest opposition party though, the Lib Dems, rumblings of unhappiness with their leader continue to be heard but it seems Caroline Reeves is determined to stay and the looser discipline of Lib Dem group may help her in the same way that a tree that bends can withstand higher winds.

The Conservatives, though, have always been more rigid in their demand for loyalty from their members but the patience of some seems to have been tested beyond breaking point, as we saw when six voted for Cllr Tony Rooth’s (Con, Pilgrims) amendment that would have prevented the Guildford-Dongying partnership agreement being signed, at least for the time being.

Nonetheless, the veneer of unity on the Local Plan has, perhaps surprisingly considering the signs of discontent amongst Conservative supporters in some Tory wards, stayed intact.

But clumsy management of several issues has revealed poor political judgement and is bound to have reinforced doubts about the current leadership in some quarters.

First, in April, there was a reduction in the size of the Planning Committee. A significant number of Conservative members were unhappy about the change which brought an end to the situation in which each ward could have direct representation.

Despite the declared opposition by certain Tories, the reluctance by enough to rebel, when it came to the vote, was sufficient for the change to go ahead. According to one well-placed source, Conservative backbenchers had been informed that the Lib Dems would support the change, making resistance futile. So they were surprised that, in the event, only the Lib Dem leader voted in favour of it.

Then there was an unexpected minor re-shuffle of the Executive in May. The only casualty was former council leader Tony Rooth who “stepped down”, it was said, on health grounds, a reason Rooth himself quickly denied. Since the event, it is clear there is little love lost between the former lead councillor for housing and the current leadership.

And more recently we have had the double whammy of the Cllr David Reeve complaint hearing and the rushed decision to enter a partnership agreement with Dongying in China.

Both have attracted criticism from those who take notice of council affairs. The council leader can perhaps be thankful that Reeve’s case was not presented by an expert lawyer.

In any case, the expected guilty verdict was a pyrrhic victory and a substantial majority of councillors, including two Executive members, were only too happy to bring an end to the sorry affair that cost £15,000 of taxpayers money, by voting for an amendment which meant all Cllr Reeve had to do was attend a training session for which he had already signed up. Not much face saved there.

And if the handling of the complaint was an example of seriously bad judgement the rushing through of the proposal to partner with the city of Dongying added a worrying disregard for proper process. What else can explain the booking of flight tickets to China before the council had even agreed it was the right thing to do?

Not that the debate was without some amusing moments, such as Cllr Illman’s claim that one reason to vote in favour of the trip was that if the delegation did not travel they would incur “penalty charges”. There were also some rather sinister accusations of racism and the treat of another school lesson from Cllr Bilbe.

Last time, in an Executive meeting, the subject was philosophy, this time, geography. “How many councillors’, he asked, “could point to Dongying on a map?” Perhaps noticing some worried looks from some of his colleagues, fearful that teacher was going to announce a snap test, he continued, “How many could even point to Freiburg?”

One could sense that while a few, who had done theior homework, had to resist the urge to raise their hands and call: “Me sir!” others were only too happy that the questions were rhetorical.

But it seemed a strange way to reassure onlookers that the council was properly informed about the decision it was about to take, as was Cllr Matt Furniss’s rubbishing of any information found on Wikipedia, which the councillors, who had prepared, were relying on. Despite his derision for the online encyclopaedia, Furniss failed to demonstrate what inaccuracies the Wikipedia entry contained, nor did he suggest better sources of information on the obscure Chinese city.

Worth pointing out is the coincidence of Tory “rebels” in the Planning Committee vote and that on Dongying. The following councillors voted for both: Bob McShee, Jenny Wicks, Dennis Paul (who stood against Spooner in the post-Mansbridge leadership election) and Christian Holliday. If this is a faction who would like to see a change of leadership we can probably now add Tony Rooth to the list.

But the real question is whether this is the tip of an iceberg or just a few discontents. It is unlikely we will know for some time. Getting rid of leaders, even unpopular ones who are reluctant to leave, is often tricky. It is rumoured that there was some sort of bid earlier this year but details are scant.

Of course, it will all come out in the wash as the old adage goes, but just how long to go before laundry day?

Meanwhile, as a footnote, re-selection of candidates, normally something associated with the national Labour party, is apparently underway under the direction of former council leader Hon Freeman Andrew Hodges. On past form, the Tories, as well as the other parties, have had a hard job finding candidates, and one might think that, “beggars can’t be choosers”.

Will there be casualties to act as a shot across the bows of the malcontents? Should Cllrs Rooth, McShee, Wicks, Paul and Holliday be worried? Not in a truly democratic party, surely.

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One Response to Opinion: Wars and Rumours of Wars

  1. John Perkins Reply

    October 31, 2017 at 9:22 am

    It’s interesting that Martin Giles should even consider the possibility that “malcontents” might need to be worried about the actions of their fellow party members. Mavericks and dissent are essential elements of a properly functioning political party. Without them the party might find that all its members accept only one man is capable of thought.

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