Politics ‘a rough and tumble game’ says Councillor John Clark as he quits as leader of Fenland District Council

Cllr John Clark. Picture: Steve Williams.

Cllr John Clark. Picture: Steve Williams. - Credit: Archant

Council leader John Clark shocked colleagues tonight by resigning his position at Fenland District Council.

Cllr John Clark.

Cllr John Clark. - Credit: Archant

He told a private meeting of Conservative councillors that he had “had enough” and would be relinquishing the job he’s held for since May 2014.

Nominations will now be invited for his successor and a secret ballot of Conservative councillors will select a new leader early next month.

Cllr Clark said he was unhappy with the recent de-selection of Cabinet colleagues Will Sutton (his effective deputy) and Michelle Tanfield after the NE Cambs Association picked alternative candidates to contest their seats in 2019.

Cllr Clark’s resignation comes amidst growing discontent among Tory backbenchers who feel the council has been neither entrepreneurial enough nor tackled the growing sense of disenfranchisement that many of them have privately told me they have felt.

Fenland District Councillor John Clark, arriving at Fenland Hall for the election of a new leader.

Fenland District Councillor John Clark, arriving at Fenland Hall for the election of a new leader. - Credit: Archant

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Some have expressed disappointment with the planning department, too, and want the council to re-consider its shared services arrangement with Peterborough City Council.

The council has also faced criticism from some councillors over a dire approach to tourism that has left the district almost rudderless in its approach to what many feel should be a vital part of its remit.

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In a resignation letter sent to his 33 Conservative colleagues (Councillor Simon King was re admitted to the group following the police decision not to investigate expenses allegations) Cllr Clark described politics as a “a rough and tumble game”.

He was especially critical of the association’s decision to select former district councillor Phil Webb as one of the two candidates to replace councillors Sutton and Tanfield.

“Phil Webb used to be a Conservative but left to stand as an independent and then went on to stand as a UKIP member,” he said. “He also made unhelpful remarks about the Conservatives in public.”

Cllr Clark added: “He will be representing Christchurch and Elm but he will be living in Whittlesey some 20 miles away whereas Will has been a well respected councillor in Christchurch for 16 years and lives in the ward.”

He said: “Whatever your views about Will and Michelle they surely cannot display anywhere near the disloyalty of Phil Webb. This situation would never have happened under the Conservative Association that I joined some 12 years ago.”

Cllr Clark described being leader “as a bit like being a football manager. Everyone knows how to do the job better than you.

“But anyone who has actually been in this position will know that the reality of the position is much harder than it appears. I know that I have done everything in my power to keep this group united and to look competent to our electorate.

“However, our local Conservative Association has withdrawn support for two of my Cabinet members, which sends a clear message.”

Cllr Clark said: “My commitment to you has always been that I would not hang on to the leadership of this group by my fingertips, so tonight I am standing down as your leader.”

He said he would chair next week’s cabinet meeting prior to appointinga new leader “and their new cabinet will be able to put forward their budget for 2018/19.”

Cllr Clark’s legacy will include his support for devolution, continued re-appraisal and efforts to energise the Wisbech 20/20 Vision, and presiding over a council that has repeatedly met its targets to cut expenditure.

He has also played a major role within the combined authority under Mayor James Palmer and earlier today and wearing his transport portfolio hat was in Ely to meet transport minister Chris Grayling.

Cllr Clark, who saw off a leadership challenge two years ago and at one stage breached his own council’s code of conduct by leaking confidential details in a planning dispute, is likely to return to the back benches until the next local elections in 2019.

His successor is widely tipped to be Councillor Chris Boden of Whittlesey although Wisbech mayor Steve Tierney – who challenged Cllr Clark for the leadership following a row over possible introduction of parking charges – may decide to throw his hat into the ring.

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