LABOUR retained control of Thurrock Council on a night of high drama in the Council Chamber on Wednesday evening.
Twenty-four Labour candidates arranged themselves on a collision course with 22 Conservatives and two pro-Tory independents and waited to see if nominally independent renegade ‘Concerned Conservative’ Ian Harrison would show at the authority’s annual meeting.
Cllr Harrison,presumably in yet another calculated insult to the Conservative he used to support – and the voters who elected him to represent them – failed to put in an appearance, or even issue an apology for absence.
That meant the balance of power would rest with another disaffected Tory, former Council Leader Anne Cheale and with the aplomb of an X-Factor hostess, she kept an audience on the edge of their seats with bated breath before casting the final lot of a chequered political career in favour of Labour.
She paused dramatically before announcing: “The deciding vote lies with me and I nominate….”
The recipient of her final act of largesse was veteran Labour councillor Charlie Curtis, a surprise late choice for the Labour nomination as Mayor. With the Labour v. Tory & Independent vote split at 24-24 the casting vote went to Cllr Cheale and once she made her personal interpretation on the judgement of Solomon, the die was cast in favour of Labour.
Councillor Curtis, an honourable and worthy choice of mayor, then proved the decisive voice in a series of votes throughout the evening.
He was spared the deciding vote on the choice of Deputy Mayor when independent John Purkiss showed a note of personal integrity by honouring a personal pledge to support another Labour stalwart Yash Gupta.
The next vote – on Cllr Curtis’s casting decision – went the Labour way with Cllr John Kent returned to office.
He seemed slightly embarrassed as he offered words of consolation to Cllr Ojetola, saying: “There are unfortunate casualties in this and one of those is Tunde who would genuinely have made a fantastic mayor.
“We need to find a way of taking politics out of the mayoralty and we will look at this in the months to come.”
Cllr Kent then led a brief eulogy of comments about Cllr Cheale, saying: “During the year Anne has been a fantastic advocate for the Borough and she has chaired our meetings with charm and good humour.
“Anne, you can look back, not only on the last year, but all the years you have served, with great pride.”
Cllr Barry Palmer added: “I know the past year hasn’t been terribly easy but you’ve stood by your principles and you have put in a great effort.”
Several Labour members added their tribute to a former public opponent but only one Tory, disappointed Cllr Ojetola, rose to offer words of praise for Cllr Cheale, saying: “All the best on your retirement. We have had our differences, but when we were new councillors you steered us through and we worked well together.”
Cllr Cheale’s own response was brief, saying: “It was with sadness I came here tonight. It has been a long journey with many ups and downs but it has been very fulfilling and a privilege to serve Thurrock and the people of Thurrock.”
In his acceptance speech, Cllr Curtis spoke emotionally of his ties to the Borough, his childhood through the war years and the deep affection he had developed for the area.
“I’m humbled, proud and grateful for this enormous honour. Now let us work together to make this Council the best in the country.”
After being elected Leader, ensuring another 12 months of control for Labour, Cllr Kent spoke generally about the role of members, saying: “A lot of people are sceptical about the role of a councillor but I must say that I’ve never met more than one or two who didn’t undertake it other than for the benefit of their fellow residents. I think that all councillors have the best interests of the Borough at heart.
“I acknowledge how tight things are, but now we’ve made the decision it’s up to all of us as members to work together and try to achieve what we need to for the borough.
“We may have differences of opinion, but I don’t think there is much difference between us in the outcomes we seek.
He then announced a Cabinet reduced to eight members, with himself retaining the portfolio for strategy and finance, deputy leader Cllr Val Morris-Cook the environment, Cllr Oliver Gerrish taking over education from Diana Hale, Barbara Rice coming into the inner sanctum to take over children’s social care, Andy Smith retaining housing and Tony Fish continuing in adult social care. Returning councillor Phil Smith makes an immediate return to senior office with responsibility for central services while Lynn Worrall retained Community, Culture and Leisure although her large portfolio has expanded further as she aborbs public protection
That also meant the departure from Cabinet of another Labour veteran Gerard Rice, who Cllr Kent proposed would be sent to serve of the Essex Police authority.
That was a controversial move by the Labour leader. When Cllr Rice last served on the county police authority, his role ended in ignominy when he was kicked out of office after a probe revealed he had claimed more than £33,000 in expenses and allowances over just two years.
He earned much of that by making more than 500 random calls at police stations, for which he was entitled to claim. That prompted an inquiry into his activities which reported “He visited 15 police stations as often as every four or five days.”
However, though he was removed from the role, the inquiry stressed he had done nothing illegal in claiming the expenses and allowances for his job.
However, it may be that his return to the authority, which has less than a year to go before it is wound down, may yet present problems.
The authority actively lobbied for Tory Cllr Wendy Herd to be returned to the role and wrote to Thurrock Council, asking for that to happen.
The letter was read out by Tory leader Phil Anderson in support of Cllr Herd, but that provoked a response from Cllr Kent who said he was outraged.
“Never, in more than 20 years, have I come across a paid Council official lobbying on behalf of a candidate. It’s outrageous and I will be taking it up with the police authority tomorrow,
Cllr Rice’s appointment to the Police Authority was again confirmed on the Mayor’s casting vote – as were an number of other appointments to outside bodies.
The most dramatic was a carefully delivered piece of political vengeance by Labour on veteran independent Cllr Palmer.
A passionate advocate of all things concerning East Tilbury and the surrounding area, he has served on the Coalhouse Fort group for more than 20 years and also on the West Tilbury Conservators.
He was clinically ousted from both roles – again on new mayor Curtis’s vote in a move that drew general admonishment from interested onlookers critical of Labour’s political brutality.
However, in a spirit of compromise, a number of other contested appointments were sorted out between Cllrs Kent and Anderson after a couple of brief adjournments but there clearly remains a significant degree of political antagonism between the two closely matched groups on the Council and, despite pledges of commitment to compromise and working together, it promises to be fractious and difficult year ahead for all concerned within the authority.
Afterwards, YT spoke to cllr Kent about the new municipal year.