I am relieved to see the Oxfordshire County Conservatives seem to have stitched together a sensible deal with three of the four independents to enable them to form an administration and get on with the business of government. There are tough decisions and choppy waters ahead so some stability and a degree of certainty will be good for Oxfordshire.
Apparently these Independents will support a Conservative line at the County Council on 14 May when the Chairman and Vice-Chairman of Council are elected and when the Leader of the Council is elected and his administration is appointed. They are also pledged to support a Conservative budget on the expectation that they will be involved in its development. So far so good.
Who are these Independents?
Cllr Lynda Atkins represents Wallingford and served on the last council. She probably voted with the Conservatives more often than not. She happened to have a seat in the council chamber next to the Liberals and some may have mistaken her for a closet Liberal but they would be wrong. I suspect she has a lot more conviction than her erstwhile Liberal neighbours and is strongly committed to her own patch.
Cllr Mark Gray represents Benson and is new to the county council. He has been an active campaigner on local minerals planning issues. There is a certain irony in the Conservatives depending on his support. The previous member for Benson was Tony Crabbe; had he stood again, he might well have held the seat for the Conservatives. However, given Tony’s decision to stand down, someone in the Party decided to parachute in an ex-Henley councillor who had been de-selected there and came with a reputation for taking two-month cruises in January/February each year, thus absenting himself from the budget-setting council meeting. Not surprisingly, he was trounced by a local and well-known campaigner.
Cllr Les Sibley has been a very high profile Labour councillor in Bicester on the Town and District Councillors and as a Parliamentary Candidate. There was barely a week when he did not feature in the local Bicester rag. However, the Labour Party foolishly de-selected him as their Parliamentary candidate and there was a major falling out, culminating in his resignation. Les is not hugely dogmatic and probably feels let down both by his union and his old political party so he may have a smile on his face as he votes for a Conservative administration and budget!
What price will they have exacted for their co-operation? Only a few will know the answer and I am not one of them so let me guess.
Firstly, they will expect support on local issues so watch out for items impacting on Wallingford, Benson and Bicester. Wallingford is a smaller market town hoping for a place at the table with the bigger towns. Benson has an issue over minerals extraction. Bicester faces huge housing growth and desperately needs infrastructure investment. It also has a large military presence and surplus army land that could lead to yet more housing growth.
Next, they may have a view about chairmanships. Tuesday’s council meeting elects the Chairman and Vice-Chairman; the Conservatives held these roles over the last four years to the annoyance of the Labour and Liberal groups. The latter will be angry if the Independents support a continued Conservative hegemony here so watch this space and listen for some angry rhetoric from Lady Brighouse. I suppose there might be a sop in the form of the Vice-Chairmanship for an Independent but I rather doubt it. Also up for grabs are the chairmanships of the scrutiny committees. Again, Labour and the Liberals were angered to have none of these in the last council and I suppose it would not be surprising to see the Independents demanding and being given chairmanships here. It would make sense of their claim to be independent of the Conservatives and holding them to account.
Then there will be the issue of the council budget where the independents clearly expect to be able to exercise influence. Budgets are not produced in a day or a week or a month. Work will be starting now on the budget for 2014/15 and the interesting question is the extent of involvement that the Conservatives will allow to their independent supporters. If it were me, I would want involvement from the start.
If all of these issues have been agreed to the satisfaction of the three independents, there will be a continuation of a fairly solid Conservative administration, much to the annoyance of Labour and, even more so, of the Liberals. The former will be the official Opposition while the Liberals will be in the wilderness. The Liberals have a formidable politician in Neil Fawcett, in the mould of Lord Rennard and it will be interesting to see how long Zoe Patrick survives as their leader, given their dire position.
All great fun for political nerds and slightly baffling for mere humans!
Watch this space!!