Fringe Box



The Dragon Says: Coercing the Opposition Leader Was Unprincipled

Published on: 27 May, 2024
Updated on: 28 May, 2024

By Martin Giles

Last week was a heavy news week. On Thursday the general election was called, the next day a horrible sex crime against a six-year-old, right here in Guildford, was reported and then, hours before the purdah period was imposed, the outcome of former Wisley Airfield appeal was announced.

See: Row Erupts Over Overview & Scrutiny Committee Nominations

Little wonder, then, if the slightly earlier news of the controversial selection of the chairpersons of GBC’s two Overview and Scrutiny Committees has been all but forgotten.

It shouldn’t be.

What was telling about the story is that, for all the talk in the wake of the truly damning Solace review, it seems the same old disreputable behaviours at the borough council continue.

Cllr Julia McShane

In her response to the explanation by Conservative group leader Philip Brooker (Worplesdon) of what had happened, Council Leader Julia McShane (Lib Dem, Westborough) points out the obvious: that any councillor can nominate anyone and that nominations are subject to a vote by all councillors.

Yes of course, but we all know there can be a big difference between the letter of the law and its spirit.

Just what is the point of GBC’s constitution stating that “the chair of each Overview and Scrutiny Committee shall be nominated by the Principal Opposition Group” if, when the leader of that group does so, he is threatened by the council leader that she will use her party’s majority to impose her own selection.

Extract from GBC’s constitution.

Conservative group leader Philip Brooker

Clearly the spirit of the constitution is that it is for the biggest opposition group to select the chairs of the O&S Committees so that scrutiny can be effective. If the chairs are effectively selected by the council leader how can there be any trust and belief that it will be?

It was shabby, unworthy behaviour and all those in the Lib Dem group who remain silent and do nothing share the guilt.

Where was the openness and the honesty? If the Lib Dems wanted to impose their own nominations why not do it openly, not make threats behind closed doors?

Cllr Sue Wyeth-Price

Just what was Cllr McShane so afraid of if Cllr Sue Wyeth-Price (R4GV, Ash South) had been elected as chair of one of the O&S Committees, as Cllr Brooker wanted?

In my experience she is one of the most assiduous in examining issues brought before the council. She really does read thoroughly the voluminous papers sent to her in the light of her extensive knowledge and carries out her own research. Aren’t they ideal qualities if you want true scrutiny?

As for the repeated claim that there is no whipping at Guildford Borough Council, it is an insult to any perceptive observer’s intelligence. How could the council leader threaten to use her majority to get her way if she had no control over the way her party colleagues voted?

It might be correct that the whipping system at the council is not formalised as it is at Westminster, but it is there nonetheless and probably as effective if one judges by the pattern of block voting.

In the 12 and more years I have been reporting on GBC, I have had councillors tell me that life would be made very unpleasant for them if they did not support the party’s leadership position and that advancement to more senior positions could be blocked or they could even be deselected at the following election.

Councillors have confided accounts of being berated outside the chamber following a vote in which they did not follow a party line. Most of these claims came from Conservatives before 2019 but one Lib Dem councillor after the party came to power that year even described himself, off the record, as “the party whip”.

In July the same year two months, after the ground-changing GBC election result of May that year, former Conservative councillor Nils Christiansen gave this revealing interview. It is worth watching as some of the lessons clearly remained unlearned (the relevant sections start three minutes in).

As the French say: Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (the more it changes, the more it’s the same thing).

The lust for power is a powerful thing. All political parties are susceptible. At first they might want power to do things they feel are necessary, good and correct. Unfortunately this can quite quickly degenerate so they just want power for its own sake and to deny power to their opponents.

This is why effective opposition and effective scrutiny is essential.

If councillors at GBC really want to show they have changed, and that they are determined to play their part in changing the council’s culture, they should re-run the O&S chair elections and respect the spirit of their own constitution.

But it won’t happen because the surviving culture at GBC and in its political parties does not do true humility and can never admit guilt. I pray I am proved wrong.

See also: Insights Interview – GBC’s Issues Go Much Deeper Than Who Chairs the Scrutiny Committees

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Responses to The Dragon Says: Coercing the Opposition Leader Was Unprincipled

  1. David Humphries Reply

    May 27, 2024 at 10:05 pm

    Absolutely disgraceful behaviour from the Lib Dems.

  2. Jules Cranwell Reply

    May 28, 2024 at 5:05 am

    Integrity is lacking in this council leader, as it has been with Tory leaders of the past.

  3. Toni Hourahane Reply

    May 28, 2024 at 7:44 am

    Shameful behaviour by any elected councillor. At what point will GBC Lib Dems admit that there is something wrong with their reporting of a multi-million pound deficit under their watch? We would not be aware of anything going on if it were not for The Guildford Dragon.

  4. Dr Thom Van Every Reply

    May 28, 2024 at 7:54 am

    Lib Dems showing their unpleasent colours here. A salient lesson for those thinking of electing a Lib Dem MP.

  5. H Trevor Jones Reply

    May 28, 2024 at 11:10 am

    As I’ve said before, national issues should not be mixed with local ones. It’s perfectly plausible that we could happen to have a brilliant Lib Dem MP even if we happen to have lousy Lib Dem local councillors.

    Let’s vote for different people on their different merits in different elections.

    • Harry Eve Reply

      May 28, 2024 at 1:46 pm

      However, the appalling Wisley decision is intrinsically linked to the Tory party nationally and locally and is one of the main issues to throw them out for the current election and SCC election in 2025.

      I hope that the next Government will re-introduce honesty and integrity to the planning system, make it based on genuine evidence rather than the false evidence that underpinned the current Local Plan, and make it work for the electorate rather than investors from home and abroad – especially those with assets, hidden from view and the taxman, in the Cayman Islands.

  6. Geoff Tonks Reply

    May 28, 2024 at 1:38 pm

    The Lib Dems demand accountability for everyone except themselves!

    GBC’s Lib Dem leader’s silence regarding the lack of political oversight during the £13 million housing scandal, the damning Solace report, and the disgrace of Guildford being relegated to bottom in Surrey for both finance and planning are bad enough.

    When these are linked to the Lib Dem’s shameful behaviour, exposed by The Dragon, in the selection of the Oversight and Scrutiny Committee chairs it raises a simple question: what else are they trying to hide?

  7. Wayne Smith Reply

    May 28, 2024 at 4:59 pm

    Guildford Dragon spot on again!

    Quite telling that de facto Lib Dem spokesperson Cllr George Potter has had nothing to say on this subject?

    Too difficult to defend the indefensible?

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