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Stephen Mansbridge – A Look Back On An Eventful Council Career – Part 3

Published on: 23 Oct, 2015
Updated on: 24 Oct, 2015

The sudden departure of the leader of Guildford Borough Council caught many by surprise and it can be directly linked to recent Guildford Dragon NEWS’ stories that he had kept even his political colleagues in the dark about his involvement with an “elected mayor” petition.

Here is the third and final part of a review of the eventful career of the former council leader Stephen Mansbridge. Local political life was certainly not dull during his time as leader. Some are mourning his loss others celebrating. Why not read the articles and make up your own mind?

Click her for Part 1 and here for Part 2.

RosettesWe now fast forward to May of this year, 2015, with two coinciding elections looming, the general election which practically everyone thought would produce another coalition government and our local election for Guildford Borough Council where the big question mark was how would the Guildford Greenbelt Group perform.

But just days before polling day reports started to circulate that Monika Juneja was organising some sort of petition. Surely, given that she was about to be up before a judge in the Old Bailey she would keep her head down?

Not a bit of it. The reports were correct and on election day itself, students, happily admitting they were getting £1 for each signature, were seen patrolling near polling stations armed with petition sheets showing Monika’s name at the top.

Many signed up. Why shouldn’t Guildford have an elected Mayor? Isn’t it more democratic to directly vote in a mayor who can “get things done” rather than allow a bunch of councillors most of whom we don’t know vote one of their unknowns to be the boss that can shape our future – so goes the argument.

Some Tories were openly angry. They were less concerned with the rights and wrongs of the council’s system of governance and more concerned about the way it would look for a member of the Conservative party, one who was facing serious criminal charges, to be openly engaged in any sort of political activity near polling stations.

Stephen Mansbridge at the election count appeared nonchalant in his colourful outfit.

Stephen Mansbridge at the election count appeared nonchalant in his colourful outfit.

Fearing it would bring disrepute, they complained to the monitoring officer who said that as long as the petitioners were not interfering with the election there was nothing unlawful. But former Major Mansbridge appeared more like Lance Corporal Jones from Dad’s Army, affecting an air of complete nonchalance.

Certainly there was nothing too much for him to worry about in the ballot boxes.

The local election results inevitably reflected national trends and, mainly due to a collapse in the Lib Dem vote which had little to do with their performance at Millmead, the Conservatives increased their already substantial majority at GBC by two while the new GGG party, hated by some Tories more than any other opponents, gained three seats, not as many as they had hoped for but first past the post made it a big ask.

Even Westborough voted in two very surprised Conservatives. There were stories of voters there asking who to vote for to stop the SNP.

Stephen Mansbridge in a colourful outfit seemed carefree at the count. We all knew that his friend faced her criminal trial within days, and he must have known by then that she intended to plead guilty, but any concern he had, he hid well. Anyway the timing of the case, delayed until after the election was convenient. We will never know what would have happened if the trial result had been known before.

The guilty plea from Monika Juneja on May 15 caught many by surprise. It had seemed to some the obvious thing for her to have done earlier in the proceedings, but by now she seemed to be determined to stick it out.

Even while the evidence seemed overwhelming she had seemed to be detached from reality, while two different barristers had presented her “not guilty” pleas at the earlier hearings. If Mansbridge was annoyed with her for stringing things out while she knew of her guilt, there was no sign of it. He remained loyal.

MJ Old Bailey

What had changed was Juneja’s representation. She now had a top criminal barrister who, by his own account, had told her pretty quickly, having read his brief, that she would have to plead guilty.

When Stephen Mansbridge stepped up to give his character witness evidence in mitigation he made a claim that many still question: he said he had a file of incriminating evidence against the GGG to be produced at a suitable time. Perhaps that time is now and we will still get to see it?

Mans bridge, who had described Juneja as a broken woman, had been her only friend in court. Even if onlookers had little sympathy with her because of her crimes there was no doubting his loyalty.

But the BBC news clip of Stephen Mansbridge leaving the Old Bailey with Monika in his wake seemed embarrassing, for all of us. He walked determinedly forward while she trotted behind. Was even he embarrassed too?

Stephen Mansbridge Photo Mike Sleigh

Stephen Mansbridge Photo Mike Sleigh.

Back at Millmead, the Lib Dems took an opportunity to embarrass Mansbridge further by challenging his council leadership election at the next full council meeting. It is normally a formality for the leader of the group with the most seats.

If his Tory pals thought that the court verdict would finally end the council leader’s ties to his close friend they were left disappointed. They continued in business together as if almost nothing had happened and she gave TV interviews showing little contrition, still claiming that she had been victimised.

A month later and political intrigue took a back seat as the Armed Forces Day national event in Guildford went well. It was a day for forgetting troubles and enjoying the occasion. It was a feather in the town’s cap for most, including the 35,000 attendees at Stoke Park.

Cllr Mansbridge had really wanted Guildford to get this event and it was an undoubted success. The leader of the council relaxed and reportedly enjoyed the hospitality to the full. Perhaps despite all the controversy he could still survive.

P1020881 Armed Forces Day

The Duke of York takes the salute as Cllr Mansbridge stands next to Prime Minister Cameron, on the right.

But the respite was short-lived. There was a fall out between the council leader and his Tory group deputy, and Tongham stable mate, Paul Spooner, over the presence of Monika Juneja at a meeting to discuss progress at a traveller site in Effingham.

Cllr Paul Spooner

Cllr Paul Spooner, who disagreed with his leader over Monika Junja’s presence at a meeting in Millmead House.

Words were said and although the fall out appeared short-lived some questioned how complete had been the reconciliation.

It was at this time, The Guildford Dragon NEWS having scooped the story, that the council leader made wild accusations behind the scenes against The Dragon, accusing us of being somehow associated with the Lib Dems and / or the GGG. More evidence, if it was needed, of limited perception, confusion and poor judgement in the leader’s thought processes.

Dissatisfaction remained over the conduct of the independent investigation into Monika Juneja which had preceded the police investigation, court case and conviction. And there was unhappiness too, in some quarters with the failure of the council to admit any culpability.

Opinion Logo 2During a council meeting in response to a statement from the Lib Dem leader of the opposition Caroline Reeves, Stephen Mansbridge surprised most present and especially it seemed the monitoring officer, Satish Mistry, by agreeing to a review of the complaints procedure.

Labelled as “forward looking”, there was a lack of clarity about how far the review would look into the Juneja investigation and although the review has been conducted its report has still to be published.

More controversy followed when Cllr Geoff Davis, promoted straight on to the Executive by a leader perhaps not spoilt for choice, was directed by Mansbridge to “sort out” Guildford Museum. Seemingly annoyed with the reaction of the Surrey Archaeological Society, Cllr Davis issued it a notice to quit by January its two rooms.

GBC was the landlord and entitled to serve the notice but it was through a council oversight that the society had not been paying a commercial rent for years. It looked like a clumsy, crass way to deal with a partner with whom the council had an agreement to collaborate. It was also uncertain whether Cllrs Mansbridge and Davis really understood that the most important artefacts in the museum belonged to the society.

Stephen Mansbridge responding to Cllr Gunning on July 28th

Stephen Mansbridge responding to Cllr Gunning on July 28.

It was on July 28 in the full glare of a webcast full council meeting that the council leader finally took a fatal step too far. In answer to a straightforward question asking about his connection the “elected mayor” petition he fudged. Most were left with the impression that he had said he was not connected with the petition. He certainly was not fully honest or open about his true level of involvement.

But this was only confirmed when The Guildford Dragon NEWS published some minutes of a University of Surrey Students’ Union meeting held in March. There for all to see in a document published on the internet was the record showing Stephen Mansbridge had approached the union for support of the petition.

The revelation came only as a real shock to his supporters within the Tory group, many others had had their suspicions all along.

If any further evidence was required it came with another revelation that local businessman Michel Harper, a character not universally admired at Guildford Borough Council, had stumped up the money to pay the students collecting petition signatures.

Mr Harper wants, quite openly, to develop his business sites. Nothing wrong with that, but covert connections, however proper between an entrepreneur like Mr Harper with a council leader, did not look good and it was this discovery that was perhaps the final reason that Stephen Mansbridge decided to jump before he was pushed by a gang that was already gathering armed with some awkward questions.

His ostensible reason for his resignation, his objection to the agreed changes to the system of governance at GBC seem to lack credibility, especially in view of his statement, part of his response to Angela Gunning in that fateful July 28 exchange. He said then: “I personally believe that the current system we have meets that, but I’m very happy to accept the hybrid system, as put in front of us as, being a derivation of that which I hope should be approved in October, will be even more successful.”

Political life in Guildford was certainly not dull with Stephen Mansbridge as council leader, and he certainly was not all bad. Many good things were achieved. But when a politician’s integrity is compromised it is normally the end of the road. And so it should be.

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Responses to Stephen Mansbridge – A Look Back On An Eventful Council Career – Part 3

  1. Martin Elliott Reply

    October 23, 2015 at 12:02 pm

    Just a minor addition concerning Army Day (sic).

    Although few knew about it, Guildford had to fight to gain the honour to host the event.

    However, once announced, Guildford Borough Council had to suspend its ethics policy to allow known major sponsors to help fund it.

    This, of course, was mearly an administrative inconvenience to the leader of the council.

    Would it be correct to assume the policy has been reinstated?

  2. Gordon Bridger Reply

    October 24, 2015 at 10:10 am

    A first rate piece of reportage – we are singularly fortunate to have in Guildford such news coverage.

  3. Stephen Campbell Reply

    October 28, 2015 at 10:23 am

    Well done for keeping on his case. It has made this Week’s Private Eye in the Rotten Boroughs section and your reporting was mentioned as dogged.

    On another point when will Michel Harper learn?

    As a resident living opposite his noisy and troublesome nightclub, I dread him getting approval for his Dubai building in the heart of our town.

    The man only cares about himself and somebody needs to make a stand against his plans. I only hope the council will listen to those who live nearby and veto his big ideas.

  4. Garry Walton Reply

    October 29, 2015 at 2:51 pm

    Well done The Dragon.

    Stephen Mansbridge brought shame on our borough. Covert relationships, however innocent and indirect, between politicians and businessmen desiring expansion, will always attract suspicion.

    I hope other councillors at Millmead will take note and that planning applications will be properly scrutinised.

    Congratulations to The Dragon and their search for the truth. The council turned a blind eye for too long.

    We must all remain vigilant.

    The new council leader will have a golden opportunity to start with a clean slate and begin anew. Let’s see if he or she wants to.

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