Barbarians at the gate

Blogging has been a bit sporadic of late because, while I CAN walk and chew gum at the same time, at this time of year maintaining my position as both Pembrokeshire’s top gardener and political blogger is a bit of a challenge.

I can’t think what excuse the author of that other website has to offer, but I know he’s into tennis so he’s probably practising moving his head from side to side in preparation for Wimbledon.

The election of Cllr Tony Brinsden as vice-chairman of PCC – breaking a 20-year IPPG monopoly – has led to much speculation as to which members of the ruling group failed to toe the party line.

A mole tells me that, at their secret group meeting, despite the claim that IPPG members are never told how to vote, Jamie Adams instructed them to support whoever they pleased as long as it wasn’t Cllr Brinsden, who he described as “treacherous”.

I must admit this is an aspect of the former detective chief inspector’s character that he has kept well concealed.

With four candidates, the voting was a protracted affair and any sadness felt when Cllr Pearl Llewellyn was bumped out on the first round was soon forgotten when The Voice of Johnston was eliminated on the second.

Ken’s demise left Cllr Brinsden and Cllr Lyn Jenkins to fight it out.

With one absentee from each side, the number of councillors present at the meeting were: IPPG 30, opposition 28.

This was further complicated because the opposition includes Cllr Alison Lee (unaffiliated) who, as well as being a Cabinet member, is a close friend of Cllr Jenkins.

So at 31-27 things didn’t look good for the “treacherous” Brinsden.

In fact, following several recounts, he came through by 29-28 with one spoiled ballot paper which means that at least two members of the ruling group disobeyed the Leader’s orders.

It could actually have been more because, as so often, it is not known which way the Tories (IPPG-lite) jumped.

What is known is that, later in the meeting, the Tories were relying on IPPG votes to ensure they hung on to their scrutiny committee chair (SRA £9,000).

That is because, on a strictly arithmetical basis, the Tories and the Alliance, each with three members, have an equal claim to this chairmanship and a vote of full council is used as a tie-breaker.

Whether some deal was done is not known, but such mutual backscratching is a routine part of the Kremlin’s murky political culture.

What we can say for sure is that any Tory who voted for Cllr Jenkins must have been cancelled out by an IPPG rebel.

Then we have the fact that Cllr Jenkins was nominated by Cllr Guy Woodham (Labour) and seconded by Cllr Stephen Joseph (unaffiliated).

On the assumption that their votes followed their speeches commending her to the council, that requires another two IPPG defectors to balance the books.

Treachery on a large scale, possibly.

Having put so much effort into doing down Cllr Brinsden, it was no wonder that Cllr Adams showed a marked reluctance to join in the standing ovation, as captured by the Western Telegraph’s reporter:

Chamber ovation

Old Grumpy understands that, just before the meeting, Cllr Adams was overheard telling one of his less reliable party members that if Cllr Brinsden won the vote it would be “a disaster”.

That chimes with a conversation I had with an IPPG bigwig the day before when he stressed how important it was for them to elect “one of our own”.

He fell silent when I put it to him that there were two possible explanations for this eagerness to keep the chair under the control of the ruling group: the expectation that a party stooge might give them favourable treatment during debates, or that the Leader’s ability to deliver the chairmanship into the hands of one of his own was an important part of the web of patronage that maintains him in power.

Though I need hardly say that neither reason deserves to be dignified by the word democratic. That brings us back to the interesting question of who was to have the contested scrutiny committee chairmanship.

Old Grumpy had been reading the Local Government Measure (Wales) 2011 which sets out the rules for the allocation of these chairs and I could find nothing that indicated that any tie should be resolved by a vote of council.

Indeed, that section of the Measure dealing with this issue is headed: “Strengthening Local Government in Wales” and one way of achieving this is a complicated formula designed to break the majority group’s monopoly of scrutiny chairs.

As a matter of principle, it seemed to me that, given the risk that they might be tempted to choose the group which would cause them least trouble, the ruling group shouldn’t have the power to decide who should prevail.

So I innocently suggested that the fairest way to settle this was to draw lots, or spin a coin.

That would have transformed a near-certainty (31 IPPG + 3 Tories) into a 50:50 shot and Cllr David Bryan, the Tory who currently trousers the £9,000 SRA, looked like someone who had just swallowed a wasp.

However, he needn’t have worried because, lawful or not, the powers that be – as they did last year – ordered a tie-breaking vote, in which he sailed into harbour with plenty to spare.

That was a rare triumph for the ruling elite because when it came to appointing an unaffiliated member to the National Park committee they suffered another setback.

I should explain that, not being members of a political group, we unaffiliated members are appointed to committees by full council.

Way back, in the days when he was Leader, regardless of whether we had expressed any particular preference, Cllr John Davies would stand up at the Annual Meeting and nominate unaffiliated members for various positions.

To counteract this, the Uglies, as Cllr Rob Lewis described us in the famous “Partygate” files, would get together a few minutes before the meeting and decide among ourselves who would like to sit on which committee.

And we had a gentleman’s (and gentlewoman’s) agreement that, if the IPPG decided to nominate someone else, they would decline to stand so that our chosen candidate would be elected by default.

This arrangement worked perfectly until it came time for Cllr Tony Brinsden to step down from the National Park in 2013, and at our non-group get together ahead of the May 2013 AGM we decided on Cllr Phil Baker as his replacement.

Unfortunately, Jamie Adams was one step ahead of us and he persuaded Cllr Owen James (elected as a Tory but sitting as an unaffiliated member after declining to join the Conservative group) to stand against Cllr Baker.

This plot was hatched at the IPPG’s pre-meeting meeting and, with the majority group and the Tories voting as one, Cllr James was duly slotted in.

As I said at the time, this piece of treachery at least relieved my of the duty to have to stand and listen to his incoherent ramblings when he buttonholed me in the tearoom.

However, at last week’s meeting we pitted Cllr Mike Evans against Cllr James and the Tory stooge from Scleddau was given his marching orders.

That was on a secret ballot so the exact voting figures are not known, but it must have taken a sizeable revolt to overturn the IPPG/Tory/Cllr James’ 34-24 majority.

All in all an excellent day for the opposition to go along with several victories at the previous day’s ordinary meeting (of which more in a later post).

I fancy that, with the election now less than two years away, even some of the less brilliant stars in the IPPG firmament are coming to realise that slavishly following Jamie’s lead might not be the best way to retain their seats on the gravy train.