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Comment: Guildford Council’s Political Changes Erupt With a Bang, Amid a Cloud of Confusion

Published on: 7 May, 2020
Updated on: 8 May, 2020

Cllrs Joss Bigmore and Caroline Reeves

By Martin Giles

Normally, before a volcano erupts, telltale signs give warning, earth tremors and wisps of smoke. But if there were signs of the Millmead eruption on Tuesday evening (May 5) few had noticed. Perhaps in lockdown our heads had been too far beneath the parapet to even observe, let alone take heed.

The scale of changes to the GBC Executive and more importantly the eventual handover of the leadership for two years (subject to a vote in full council) came as a shock. In the council’s “strong leader” model, not so popular with Lib Dems when in opposition, the real power is concentrated in that person.

But most of those within the council had not seen the leadership change coming and when it did those at the top had still not got their stories straight.

That Caroline Reeves, the council leader (Lib Dem, Friary & St Nicolas), had not, it seems, been told a leadership change was originally planned, provisionally, for July is incredible, but there we are. I assumed when I asked for her reaction to the changes that she knew of the July leadership handover proposal. It seems not, and now that has been postponed to September, which will give the Lib Dems less time, eight or nine months, to take back leadership before the next election in 2023.

But despite any internal communications chaos should we really have been so surprised? Let’s reflect.

Political Group Standings at GBC

In the post-election council, the reduced Conservatives could still have been king-makers. Their nine votes (as they had before Gordon Jackson defected) could have been decisive. The problem was they had become toxic. How could either the Lib Dems or R4GV get in bed with a party they had been bitterly fighting only weeks before? What would their supporters think, those who had voted, above all, for change?

In the end, most of the Tories supported Cllr Reeves in the leadership election, perhaps on the basis “better the devil you know” coupled with the traditional established party’s dislike of new parties and Independents.

Her success was not unexpected nor undeserved. Whoever knows Cllr Reeves cannot fail to be impressed with her sincerity and caring nature. Qualities that, as R4GV leader Joss Bigmore has pointed out, have meant she has been an ideal leader during the Covid crisis. And she has served the Guildford community in exemplary fashion for years. But politics is a rough trade and those patting you on the back one day might stab you there the next.

Talks between the Lib Dems and R4GV on any kind of power-sharing, had largely failed and Cllr Reeves gave only a single token Executive seat to the group that had almost the same number of seats. The others were taken, mainly, by her Lib Dem colleagues from the previous council, understandable perhaps given the lack of experience of so many new councillors but perhaps frustrating for thrusting new Lib Dems who wanted some real change.

Perhaps it was this desire for real change coupled with Caroline’s genuine desire for a different kind of cooperative politics that led to talks on a new Lib Dem/R4GV agreement. Or perhaps it was more a fear that if the Lib Dems did not cede more power to R4GV the new kids on the block would hold their noses and form an unopposable partnership with the Tories?

Certainly the appetite for power of Paul Spooner (Con, Ash South & Tongham) seems undiminished. Surprisingly, given the scale of the Tory defeat, he remains in place as the Conservative group leader. Some say no one else wants the job and Millmead rumours, if true, claim that if the group played football they could not call themselves “Tories United”.

GBC Election 2019 – percentage share of the vote

But to be fair, we should remember that the Conservatives did secure 29 per cent of the popular vote last May, as did the Lib Dems and a greater share than R4GV. In a council with no overall control shouldn’t they have more of a say if cooperative politics is to be the order of the day?

So we should also consider this, when the people are consulted on politicians’ behaviour they frequently say there should be less bickering, less point-scoring and more cooperation. Caroline Reeves said at the outset of her leadership, as she reminded us on Tuesday, that was the approach she would take.

So perhaps we should pay less attention to any internal communications failure and more to whether a truly different kind of politics can really be created at Millmead, with Guildford governed in a different and better way.

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