The Wokingham Paper

TONY JOHNSON: Doing the splits

Local elections
Local elections counting

When someone does the splits, unless that person has gymnastic levels of fitness it can be very painful.

When political parties do the splits it can be very painful too, especially if they’re not very fit in the first place.

Tories lose out to Labour in 2018

For some in the party, the Conservatives losing four seats at 2018’s Local Elections was hard to bear as it saw the departure of two members of the ruling executive, including the deputy leader.

Unusually, the party didn’t immediately chop its own head off following the election losses but the everyday plotting and back-stabbing went on until September, when the new deputy leader Julian McGee Sumner resigned. The coup duly followed in November and Julian replaced Charlotte Haitham Taylor as leader of the Borough Council.

Later, David Edmonds became Chairman and Frank Browne became deputy chair political in the Wokingham Conservative Association (WCA) in Rose Street.

More Tory losses in 2019

The changes didn’t work, and May 2019’s local election campaigns saw Conservative  candidates left on their own – for literature; support groups; canvassing; knocking-up etc. This approach saw them losing 10 seats, including that of their new leader.

To an observer it looked like the most disorganised Conservative campaign you could ever witness.

It was alleged later that Frank Browne was working for another borough entirely (which no one knew about) and rumoured that the Association had been in the process of parting company with its office manager, Fraser McFarland.

Post-election jockeying between former leader Keith Baker and former mayor John Kaiser ended up with back-bencher John Halsall becoming the Conservative leader of the Borough Council.

Another fine mess

In December 2019’s general election campaign, Liberal Democrats treated the seat as a marginal and fought hard for it while Conservatives treated it as a safer seat than it actually was.

Sources close to the Tory’s “little and late” campaign allege that it was further damaged by an Association officer attacking the editor of the local newspaper on a public Facebook group.

The Conservative’s eventual win probably hinged on three key factors:

  • Jo Swinson’s unrealistic claim on day one that she was going to be the next PM
  • Voter fatigue with far too many Lib Dem national leaflets through local letterboxes
  • Waverers being galvanised by a leaflet vilifying Sir John Redwood.

However, their vote share fell to under 50%.

Local Plan launch debacle

Despite a factual error in the Public Document Pack, last week’s Extraordinary Meeting of WBC’s Executive committee was expected to rubber-stamp the adoption of the Local Plan Update (LPU) and the room was packed and in anticipation of 13 questions
(i.e. a lot).

Those from members of the public mostly came from people with Conservative allegiances:

  • Anthony Pollock (current Association Officer; former Borough Councillor)
  • David Lee (former Borough Councillor; former Exec. Member for the Local Plan)
  • Jackie Rance (former Earley Town mayor)
  • Laura Edmonds (current Association Officer and wife of current Association chairman)
  • Martin Haitham Taylor (husband of current Shinfield Borough Councillor / WBC Exec Member for Regeneration)

From Councillors, Conservative Councillor for Shinfield South, Barry Patman’s question was the political equivalent of asking if WBC had got its 30 pieces of silver yet? (It hadn’t).

While Lib Dem councillors from wards other than Shinfield dared to ask questions, Conservatives from other wards didn’t.

Not just Tory splits

On a Winnersh Facebook group the Local Plan Update proposal for 250 houses on the twice-refused Winnersh Farm site had been debated intensely, where it emerged that Winnersh’s Lib Dem Borough Councillors hadn’t been told about the site actually being in the plan.

At the Exec meeting, the response to a supplementary question made it clear that Lib Dem members on WBC’s Planning and Transport (P&T) Policy Member Working Group had agreed to it.

This was a bit of a facer as one of the P&T members is Lib Dem leader Lindsay Ferris.

He’d been embarrassed a couple of years ago when, in the middle of a Council meeting, the Conservative deputy leader ‘accidentally’ revealed that the Lib Dem leader had been working with the Tories on a confidential matter (which he hadn’t told his Lib Dem colleagues about).

Other firsts

Surprise turned to astonishment when Charlotte Haitham Taylor, Executive Member for Regeneration, made a speech AGAINST the LPU policy (see page 6-7) then voted against it.

It’s a shame that Cllr Haitham Taylor decided in Autumn 2019 that she wouldn’t be standing for
re-election in May 2020, also that the Exec Member for Business / Swallowfield Borough Councillor didn’t turn up and another Exec Member didn’t say a word (for once).

The Last Word

It’s clear that the Local Plan Update has triggered yet another split, this time between the Conservative ruling group at Wokingham Borough Council and officers of the Wokingham Conservative Association.

It wouldn’t be surprising if there weren’t more calls for resignations and actions..

But if the splits continue and then lead to confusion and WBC not delivering, then public disquiet will soon turn to anger and worse.

There’s more to this than meets the eye.

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