IT might have been the only time Labour, Lib Dem and Green councillors have not wanted the mayor to cut off an overrunning Tory speaker. There was Gio Spinella, the Conservative deputy leader, revealing why he was about to break his party’s whip and back a motion calling for a People’s Vote on Brexit. It was the only contribution of last night’s full council meeting for which nearly everyone had looked up from their mobile phones iPads to listen. But just as he was about to reveal how his torn thoughts had led him to vote in a different way to those sitting around him, mayor Jenny Headlam-Wells switched off his mic.
Never mind, a few minutes later and the cliffhanger was resolved when he raised his arm to support the Lib Dem motion calling for a new national vote on the final Brexit deal, significantly with remaining in Europe on the ballot paper and no general election clause. To watch, it was almost like he was struggling to decide what to do while he was on his feet, or at least during the meeting, pitching party loyalty against his obvious fears over Brexit.
As rivals applauded him for his vote, he reminded them firmly that he was still a Tory; there would be no Andrew Marshall-style drift to the Lib Dems. Oliver Cooper, the Leave-supporting leader of the group, gave him a mock-cuddle. Cllr Spinella reacted as if a man covered in slime had accosted him, and rustled his jacket and pretend to wipe flecks off his shoulders. I couldn’t get a straight answer over whether this was just theatrics, but the manner in which he was bundled out of the leadership earlier this year does not look like it has been forgotten.
The Conservatives have adopted a policy of abstaining on all motions which they say Camden does not have a direct influence over and, when asked about the stance, will question the resources – £10k to stage a full council meeting – used to have the debate at this level. Given that there are remainers in the group but also some well-documented Brexiteers, this also provides a convenient compromise.
And this is where Labour may have been mistaken in swapping their anti-austerity motion out and swapping in a second one on Brexit, essentially adding that request for a general election. Firstly, the headlines had already gone to the Lib Dem ‘win’ of the first motion on Europe, secondly we’ve been told ending austerity is the vital issue – councillors missed the People’s Vote march to discuss budgets and Georgia Gould has some real horror stories in her opinion piece in last month’s CNJ – and, finally, they may have prevented the real Tory fireworks from unfolding. I use the word fireworks in the full knowledge that I’m writing about a council meeting, but give me something back here.
Cllr Spinella, it turns out, was in no mood to abstain on anything and was apparently ready to ignore the order to hand-sit on the austerity motion by voting against it. If it had been heard and he had been called to speak, let’s just say he might not still be deputy leader this morning. What ifs and a speech we didn’t get to hear, of course, as Labour’s determination that the Lib Dems would not get the final word on the Brexit stalemate took precedent.
Note, there is the theory that some in the Tory party would have been happy for Cllr Spinella to shoot off at all angles and hasten his departure from his role as the No. 2, in the group, but that may be a story for another day. Everybody has been mildly on by-election guard in Frognal since his removal as leader in the wake of the council elections; although there is a certain sense that Cllr Spinella is also enjoying a more carefree approach to his council politics.
Note too, Labour organisers will say that Brexit and austerity are bound up together, as is their quest for a general election, and therefore they were not really relegating a discussion on cuts down the agenda.
In the end, Cllr Spinella’s spotlight moment meant the rarity of stitching together of a motion in which Labour voted with the Lib Dems was suddenly a bit of a sideshow to his ponderous, pensive will he, won’t he speech.
Let’s not forget that here were Labour councillors in the shadow Brexit secretary’s backyard taking a small gulp and supporting a People’s Vote, without adamantly insisting on the national party line that a general election is the real route to unlocking the country’s Brexit deadlock. The only criticism of the Lib Dem strategy appeared to be a lack of visible planning for the event of a new referendum to return the same vote.
At least four left-wingers slipped away as the debate started; the decision to support a motion which cuts across Jeremy Corbyn had not been unanimous in Labour’s ranks. There was a healthy number of Labour councillors who stayed to support it, many relishing the opportunity. After all, with the abstaining Conservatives resolved not to take part, the stage was now free for another rounds of familiar attacks on the government’s failure to negotiate a deal and more commentary on its wider budget choices.