IT was a bit like a good wedding: some music, a DJ cutting between disco and swing, cupcakes, some more cupcakes, speeches that went on a bit, some speeches that ran close to the knuckle, some sparkly drinks and then a couple of out-of-sight arguments to ensure a sprinkling of tears before bedtime. The mayor-making event certainly was quite a night at the Town Hall last Wednesday as Jonathan Simpson was sworn in for his second turn as the borough’s first citizen.
There were convivial chats outside the main chamber, of course – some good-spirited banter. This is a night where political rivalries are traditionally suspended and replaced by celebration. To that end, Cllr Simpson had arranged the Puppini Sisters to sing a bouncy version of Blondie’s Heart Of Glass for everyone and there was a pyramid of cakes decorated with the designs used in Amy Winehouse’s tattoos. Not something you will see at many local authorities in the United Kingdom, this was to mark how he will work with the Amy Winehouse Foundation over the next 12 months in an attempt to improve drugs education in schools.
But what about those arguments? There’s not much secrecy about them. They generally all stemmed from the Liberal Democrat challenge to Labour’s nomination. Angered that Cllr Simpson had recently had a turn as Mayor, they suggested Labour could not find anyone else – it’s a tricky thing to undertake if you’ve got a full time job – and that long-serving Lib Dem Flick Rea should be given a chance. The fors and againsts are long-rehearsed: During the four years that the Lib Dems and the Conservatives held a coalition power pact at the Town Hall, it shared the mayoralty.
Maybe Labour’s mistake in opposition was to accept that spirit of sharing when Nurul Islam took the chain a few years back because when the group came back to power in 2010, the idea was forgotten and the drawbridge to mayor’s parlour was quickly pulled up to the other parties. The high ground would have better foundations if they had not enjoyed having an opposition Mayor, it has been suggested several times over the last fortnight.
The Lib Dems insisted last week that they made only brief speeches at Wednesday’s mayor-making event because they didn’t want to wreck the occasion with political sparring, witnessed first hand by a host of people you don’t normally see at full council meetings including Mitch Winehouse and other members of Amy’s family.
But the group was steaming-angry at Labour’s Julian Fulbrook, who used his speech – delivered to the soundtrack of cackles from some Labour members and a view of frowny faces from others – to lambast it all as Lib Dem PR stunt and claim that Cllr Rea was being used. Lib Dems decoded this as accusing Cllr Rea of not having a mind of her own. Later, Cllr Fulbrook pressed more angry buttons when he mentioned the case of Omar Faruque Ansari, the Lib Dem Mayor who was arrested at the parlour by benefits investigators.
“You’ve soured the evening,” Keith Moffitt told Cllr Fulbrook when the pair met in a corridor later in the evening. “I take my politics very seriously,” he replied, in a conversation which had several more parts, but most of which probably fall under the old… what happens at mayor-making stays at mayor-making rulebook.
It’s true that Flick had clearly been upset by the to and fro across the desks. You could see her eyes scanning the room, almost like a mafia boss drawing up a hitlist. She has a long memory and is not one to forget what happened last week.
There was more. The Tories did not seem to simply want to be extras in this soap opera. Normally, the gossip around the old place is about Labour Party rebels clipping their leaders, but on new Conservative leader Claire-Louise Leyland’s first night in charge, the party whip was snapped beneath her feet. Former group leader Andrew Marshall simply ignored the party line and seconded Flick’s nomination. The group was supposed to be abstaining on the basis that, although it agrees with sharing the mayoralty, a celebration event to sign in the new mayor is not the place to fight it out. One Tory said: “It was a nasty thing to do to Claire-Louise, so needless.” Cllr Marshall’s point of view has been that you can’t have an abstention as Mayor and that you have to vote for someone, so why not just continue Conservative policy of recent years.
In those hallowed Judd Street corridors later, the Conservatives who are excited about the Leyland leadership years to come accused the Lib Dems of working on Cllr Marshall to vote with them, encouraging him to break the whip. He did it of his own accord, the Lib Dems claimed. More growling ensued. Either way, CLL (I think CLL can catch on in an IDS type of way) and Cllr Marshall are surely in line for a friendly afternoon coffee to discuss their differences. The angriest members muttered something about ‘deselection’ but the patch-up crew in the ranks have since completely ruled that out as even an idea.
The mayor-making party was still going when the press room called and hauled us back to Camden Town. Frank Sinatra’s voice was echoing from the speakers. It was time for everyone to face the music and dance.