Gory Tory story

Old Grumpy notices that the Right Hon Stephen Crabb MP has rather belatedly decided to jump onto the anti-IPPG bandwagon.

The recently promoted Secretary of State for Wales tells the Western Telegraph: “The truth is that normal politics and governance do not really exist at County Hall. Pembrokeshire is one of the last remaining places where individual councillors get themselves elected by promising to be independent and then immediately join a ruling party bizarrely called the Independent Group.”

This is so similar to what I’ve been saying for the past 15 years that I’m thinking of consulting Cllr Rob Summons to see if there are grounds for an action for breach of copyright.

And in all that time we’ve not heard a peep out of Mr Crabb for the simple reason that many of the members of the “bizarrely” named Independent Group are either Tory party members or fellow travellers.

But, with an election due in nine months’ time, and Labour’s Paul Miller among the front-runners in the campaign to highlight the IPPG’s shortcomings, Mr Crabb is looking to cover all the bases.
A little bit of history will help to expose this cynical piece of political opportunism for the rank hypocrisy that it is.

Let us go back to the 1999 county council elections when the Tories made their first serious foray into Pembrokeshire’s local politics.
They won three seats (Mary McGarry (Amroth) Phil Llewellyn (Uzmaston) and David Wildman (Burton)) and these were later joined by Mark Edwards following a bye-election in Prendergast.
Cllr Llewellyn was the leader of this little group and he did an excellent job of keeping the IPG on its toes.
His downfall was brought about by the Local Government Act 2000 – the one that introduced the Cabinet system.
Cllr LLewellyn favoured the alternative elected mayor model and even persuaded his party executive to stump up £200 to run a joint campaign with Labour to achieve that end.

This was torpedoed when IPG Leader Maurice Hughes (remember he?) called two leading Tories (Hugh Luke and Steven Cole) into his office to explain that an elected Mayor was not a good idea because, as all four national seats (2 MPs and 2 AMs) were then held by Labour, it was highly likely that any election for a mayor would go the same way.
Why rock the boat, he told them, when “Tories”, albeit of an unofficial hue, already held sway in county hall.

Cllr Hughes had another reason for opposing an elected mayor: he knew that on a county-wide poll it wouldn’t be him.
That put paid to Cllr Llewellyn’s campaign for an elected mayor and soon after that Llewellyn, Wildman and Edwards packed their tent and joined the IPG.
For a fuller, contemporaneous account see Tory turncoats.

Fast forward to 2004 when the Tories contested only one of the county’s 60 seats, though there were several card-carrying party members standing as independents, or, more correctly, for the IPG.
The lone ranger was in Johnston where retired schoolteacher Frank Elliott was the candidate (see Back-door Tories)
To add insult to injury, he was opposed by Tory party executive member Steven Cole who was hoping to win the seat for the IPG.

As it happened, both were soundly beaten by Ken Rowlands (Lab) and we all know what happened to him.
By the time the 2008 local elections came around, the Tories had established themselves as the county’s leading party with two MPs and two AMs and this new found strength was reflected in the 30 candidates they fielded.
The only problem was that most of them were completely hopeless cases whose presence on the ballot paper was designed to head off the criticism that the Tories were the IPG’s stooges.
For instance three of the candidates lived in Martletwy, though the sitting member for that area Cllr Rob Lewis, whose photo had appeared earlier on Angela Burns’ election address, was allowed a free run.

One of the three, Fiona Birt-Llewellyn was sent forth to do battle with me in Hakin, though there is no evidence that she ever set foot in the ward.
Indeed, I did print off a Martletwy-Hakin routefinder from the AA’s website which I intended to send to her, but Grumpette vetoed my scheme on the grounds that it was cruel.
In all, the Tories did quite well in the half a dozen or so wards where they put up serious candidates, but their token efforts elsewhere only brought humiliation down on their heads.
For a full account go to Party Games.

Things were not much improved in 2012, certainly not in terms of seats won, though a Tory did contest Martletwy this time around.
Indeed, as I pointed out just after the 2012 election, there were more card carrying Tories (4) on the IPPG benches than in the council’s Conservative group (3).

And we mustn’t forget that, shortly after the 2012 election, the the recently-retired IPG leader Cllr John Davies put himself forward as the Tory party candidate for the role of Police Commissioner – supported, I am reliably informed, by none other than the aforementioned Stephen Crabb (Carpetbagger).

There was also the strange business of the Burton by-election where card-carrying Tory and IPPG member, Cllr Mark Edwards, was spotted ferrying in IPPG loyalists to canvas on behalf of their man (Rob Summons) even though the Conservatives had a dog in the fight.

And it is also interesting that Mr Crabb should choose PCC’s house magazine (aka the Western Telegraph) to launch this attack on the IPPG.
As I’ve mentioned before, the WT charges 50% more for public notices which the council is legally required publish than it does for other forms of advertising.

A report to council explained this by pointing out that the WT was the only newspaper with a county-wide circulation and, not to put too fine a point on it, it had the council over a barrel.
I did make an attempt to persuade my fellow councillors to report the newspaper to the competition commission for abuse of its dominant market position, but the IPG (as it was then known) block vote saw me off.
Conspiracy theorists suspect that there is an unspoken compact between the “newspaper that fights for Pembrokeshire” and PCC along the lines that we won’t ask too many questions about your advertising rates if you don’t ask too many questions about what goes on in county hall.
All that has changed with the launch of the Pembrokeshire Herald which also has a county-wide circulation and, I am told, has offered to publish the council’s public notices at a much reduced rate.
In these times of budget cuts, not an offer to be sniffed at.

Despite what the conspiracy theorists say, “Wales’ biggest selling weekly newspaper” has not shied away from criticism of the IPG.
In 2008 it published an editorial in language that even I would hesitate to use.
The IPG, it railed, was: “…a farcical ‘independent’ cabal, or a cabinet of puppets, presiding over the last supper of democracy”, adding for good measure: “What a sad state local government has slumped into: polarised by party politics and overshadowed by the ‘independent’ umbrella of the ruling oxymoron party”.

Unfortunately, this appeared a few weeks after the 2008 election by which time the IPG had installed itself in power for the next four years.
It was at it again in 2012 when it asked how many those who stood as independents will have “the courage of their convictions” and “stand by their election campaigns and remain truly independent”.

But again it waited until the election was safely out of the way before alerting its readers to the IPG’s electoral trickery.

In truth, Mr Crabb’s Tory party and the Western Telegraph must both share a large portion of the blame for the corruption of the democratic process in Pembrokeshire.
The Western Telegraph is already paying as the Herald eats into its circulation and, hopefully, Mr Crabb’s turn to pick up the tab will come at next May’s general election.