Fenland: Local elections 2019: Editor offers his assessment of what went wrong for the Conservatives and why we now have 10 independents in place

PUBLISHED: 19:39 03 May 2019 | UPDATED: 20:15 03 May 2019

Sarah Bligh at the Fenland local elections 2019 at the Hudson Leisure Centre in Wisbech on Friday, May 3. Picture: HARRY RUTTER

Sarah Bligh at the Fenland local elections 2019 at the Hudson Leisure Centre in Wisbech on Friday, May 3. Picture: HARRY RUTTER

Archant

Days earlier, as deputy mayor, he had looked every part the mayor-elect and first citizen as he shared the honours with Mayor Jan French of heading the St George's Day parade.

MP Steve Barclay with Alan Bristow, a Tory winner in Whittlesey, and Alan's son Paul who is a Parliamentary candidate in the forthcoming Peterborough election. Talen at the Fenland local elections 2019 at the Hudson Leisure Centre in Wisbech on Friday, May 3. Picture: HARRY RUTTERMP Steve Barclay with Alan Bristow, a Tory winner in Whittlesey, and Alan's son Paul who is a Parliamentary candidate in the forthcoming Peterborough election. Talen at the Fenland local elections 2019 at the Hudson Leisure Centre in Wisbech on Friday, May 3. Picture: HARRY RUTTER

But today his hopes and ambitions were turned on their head as Kit Owen lost not only his seat on Fenland District Council to a Green Party candidate but lost his town seat to another Green Party candidate.

Mr Owen (the first time in decades he's not enjoyed the prefix of Cllr) could sense the writing on the wall, making an early but brief appearance at the count. He was not there to hear results – and his fate - declared by returning officer Paul Medd.

His was one of several upsets for the Conservatives as they saw their majority on the district council reduced by eight as Fenland absorbed the outer ripples of a pro Brexit backlash.

NE Cambs Conservative Association chairman Jan French insists its Brexit what did it and is writing to Theresa May to tell her so. She would have told Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay the same but never had the chance to do so. He turned up briefly at the count at the Hudson leisure centre, Wisbech, but their paths never met.

The minister and local MP chatted to a handful of candidates, congratulated Alan Bristow for winning at Whittlesey, posed for a photo with Bristow senior and Bristow junior (son Paul is a Parliamentary candidate for Peterborough) and he was gone. With constituency business and his birthday to attend to it was a busy day ahead – though the results for the Tories both locally and nationally look less than encouraging.

Ready, as ever, for whatever comes along the town council in March is already in the throes of looking for the man or woman who would be mayor in a few days time. The likelihood is Cllr Rob Skoulding, who retained both his town and district seats for the first time as a Conservative (he's moved from being independent) tipped to take on the role for a second time.

Disappointment among mayoralty hopefuls extended to Wisbech where Tory town councillor Jess Oliver lost her seat to her god father and independent candidate Nick Meekins, which will deprive her of becoming deputy mayor this year and de facto mayor in 2020.

Cllr Meekins, a former Tory councillor himself and one-time mayor, is probably not flavour of the month in the Oliver household tonight after also snatching the district council seat previously held by his former fishing buddy and Jess's dad David.

Defeated Wisbech district cllr Gary Tibbs (he held hs town seat) taken at the Fenland local elections 2019 at the Hudson Leisure Centre in Wisbech on Friday, May 3. Picture: HARRY RUTTERDefeated Wisbech district cllr Gary Tibbs (he held hs town seat) taken at the Fenland local elections 2019 at the Hudson Leisure Centre in Wisbech on Friday, May 3. Picture: HARRY RUTTER

Whilst Brexit might have been behind the scything of the Tory majority, others point to turmoil within the party's own and normally well oiled machine for the fall-out. It's a more probable explanation.

In recent months a number of prominent Tories failed to win selection for wards they had held in many instances for several years. What lay behind it, as evidenced by the flurry of leaflets put out attacking them, was their presumed support for pay parking in the four towns. What in fact they had done, along with others, was to agree to a business case to consider it but on their bikes they were.

They took it badly, quitting the Tory Party, coming out as independents, and on the day winning over their Conservative replacements. It was a stunning result as evidenced by the likes of Cllr Michelle Tanfield who, after retaining her Elm and Christchurch seat along with Will Sutton, developed an ear to ear grin that became ever more visible as other independents enjoyed similar success.

Not among that hard core of independents was Daniel Divine, a former UKIP county councillor now living in Chatteris and who stood as an independent and managed to squeeze out long serving Tory councillor Florrie Newell. She was livid and vented her anger at anyone close enough to hear.

Green Party candidate Robert White who defeated mayor-elect Kit Owen for March Town Council. Taken at the Fenland local elections 2019 at the Hudson Leisure Centre in Wisbech on Friday, May 3. Picture: HARRY RUTTERGreen Party candidate Robert White who defeated mayor-elect Kit Owen for March Town Council. Taken at the Fenland local elections 2019 at the Hudson Leisure Centre in Wisbech on Friday, May 3. Picture: HARRY RUTTER

“It is going to take me a lot to get over this,” she said but get over it she will have to as will Gary Tibbs, another former Wisbech mayor, who lost his Kirkgate seat to the independent challenge of taxi driver Dave Patrick. The contest here was, in a word, horrid with a brace of leaflets posted out in the name of the defeated councillor embracing a tumultuous outpouring of venom more akin to a poison pen letter than a piece of serious political dogma, Cllr Patrick has consulted police over the matter but can be consoled by an electorate that rejected it and provided him with a comforting 52 vote margin of victory.

Former Tory councillor Sarah Bligh has of late joined the ranks of the Lib Dems and crossed the winning line in the company of fellow Lib Dem Gavin Booth to secure both seats for Wisbech St Mary and Parson Drove. Sarah needed strong protective clothing to weave through a rain forest of political abuse but in the end secured a decisive win to silence critics.

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With 10 independents, two Lib Dems and one Green joining the 26 Tories at Fenland Hall the composition of the new council will look and feel different.

Next up of course is who becomes leader – a choice expected to be between the current leader Chris Seaton and the man dubbed in recent months 'leader in waiting' Chris Boden.

As Tory agent for the constituency it has been Cllr Boden's fingerprints on some of the offending election literature although whether he wrote much of it is unclear. Most definitely, however, as agent he edited/signs off all election material and there will be some looking for explanations.

Was political engineering at work to ensure a healthy intake of candidates attracted to him – and to his proposition of fundamental change – that in some way led to the non selection of long serving Tory councillors?

Many think so and one former leader, Alan Melton, who retains a position of influence on the executive of the local Tory association, believes an inquiry is needed to establish what did happen and why instead of a loose grouping of independents the council is now faced with a hard core ten of them with which to contend.

And if proof was needed of what was happening, we need only turn back 13 months and to the 2018 annual meeting of the local Tory association and the speech by former president Victor Aveling.

“We have replaced experienced councillors with some weak candidates,” he stormed.

“And in my opinion one unsuitable candidate who after being deselected as a Conservative councillor stood against us unsuccessfully firstly as an independent and then under the UKIP banner.”

He felt the will of local branches was ignored “as many of the selections were carried out by the executive as most branches didn't have enough members to make the selection”.

And he added: “It has become obvious the majority of the executive have decided on their choice of candidate before the meeting either by having a prior meeting or by using social media.

“The idea of a private group deciding the policy of the executive council is completely unacceptable.”

The leadership issue will be decided shortly and will concentrate many minds in days to come.

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