Saturday, 30 January 2010

Southport Conservative Civil War-the story so far

It is hard to keep pace with the civil war in Southport Tories. Newspaper headlines like: ‘Angry Rift leaves Town’s Tories in Crisis’, Former Tory MP backs Lib Dems, Feuding between Southport Conservatives leaves Brenda Porter's campaign in disarray, ‘Cameron puts Southport Tories in ‘Special Measures’ or Respected Tory ex Mayor Suspended, or Former Tory Leader (Tom Glover) Suspended, or 'Former Tory Leader (Les Byrom) leaves Party', they keep coming.

To explain the implosion of the Southport Tories we need to go back to the autumn of 2007 and the eve of the General Election that didn’t happen. Gordon Brown’s honeymoon lifted the Labour Party poll ratings and that was the moment the local Tories ‘A’ listed candidate decided to resign. There was clear panic in the ranks and Southport Tories’ Constituency Executive swiftly embarked on a truncated selection process. On the Chair’s casting vote they chose a rookie Councillor, Brenda Porter who only days earlier had said she didn’t want the job. The wider membership was not involved. Long time Councillor, NW Tory Leader and former by election candidate (Wirral) Les Byrom was excluded on a technicality. The disintegration had begun.

We knew little of Mrs Porter. She had fought a homophobic campaign attacking Lib Dems for their policy of abolishing Section 28 when first elected. She attracted some very ‘untypical’ Tories supporters –her chief cheer leader, best known for his Pagan beliefs, constantly wrote and spoke up in her favour, seeming to push out more experienced and knowledgeable advisers. He even went so far as to pay to have a book published in which he ‘slagged off’ senior Tories as ‘imprudent old toffs’ ..’traitors’ and much worse.

Whilst the Tories set about squabbling in earnest we kept our attentions firmly focused on the electorate. Whilst up and down the land Conservatives were making gains in Sefton they fell back. They lost three seats (one per year) to the Lib Dems between 2006-08 and landed up with only 6 of the 21 councillors in Southport.

We sat bemused as Mrs Porter and her friends turned on their colleagues. David Pearson a popular ex Mayor found himself suspended and wished a long and happy retirement. He fought back and even though the whip had been withdrawn he was selected to fight his Dukes Ward seat which he easily won. Les Byrom, the former Leader-deposed by Mrs Porter and her friends- got so fed up with the back-biting and squabbling that he left the Tory Party and became the first Labour Councillor in Southport for nigh on 40 years. Sir Ron Watson-who many Lib Dems will know from his LGA work-remains, we believe, the real target of Mrs Porter’s Pagan outriders.

Then one morning we woke up to another series of damaging headlines for the Tories; ‘Tory HQ in melt down’, ‘Tory President resigns’, ‘Tory Treasurer arrested’,! Respected local solicitor Jeremy Myers stood down along with four other professional men from the constituency executive. We were at a loss. Then we got a tip off to look at the Southport Conservatives return to the Electoral Commission where the Chair states that by the end of the next financial year ‘this Association will be financially unstable’

More was to follow. The constituency treasurer –one of those who signed off the accounts to the electoral commission-was arrested in relation to the ‘disappearance of £21,000 from their HQ’. Southport Tories are no strangers to financial scandals. Chris Davis has done much to expose the antics of Southport Tory and MEP Den Dover who still has not repaid the £500,000 demanded of him by the European Parliament for false expenses claims.

In normal circumstances a candidate like Mrs Porter would be exposed by debate and the cut and thrust of politics as ill-suited to the role thrust upon her. The heart of the criticism made by many of her colleagues is that she is out of her depth, with little understanding of Tory policy or philosophy. She has made few ‘political’ utterances-opposition to the repeal of section 28, opposition to redundancies in the Post Office, opposition to the proposal from the Council Chief Exec to cut back on senior posts in the local authority. She sometimes appears confused-demanding that her vote is recorded against a motion in cabinet only later to declare that she is in favour! In some quarters she is called Big Spender Brenda because when faced with proposals to reduce expenditure (eg over the reduction of top earning council officers, the trimming of the council capital programme) she plaintively pleads ‘why can’t we have it all’

There must be many, even amongst that tiny cabal of Tories who narrowly selected her in 2007, who recognise that she is being asked to a job for which she is ill suited. It is easy to understand why, fearing an imminent General Election, they selected her, but as time goes on it is evident that the mayhem she has wrought has undermined the cause she was called upon to champion.

The latest debacle is the ousting of the Chair of the Conservative Association, Jackie Glover, for not giving sufficient support to the parliamentary campaign. The national Conservative Board has imposed a Chair from out of town on the association. Jackie and her husband Tom-a former Tory Leader of the Council -have between them 112 years of devoted service to the Conservative Party. Mrs Porter’s campaign manager effectively wrote an open letter denouncing Mrs Glover-a copy on our website-which was widely leaked by Conservatives who received it.

Early on the Conservative candidate presented similar difficulties as Sarah Palin did to the Democrats. How do you lay a glove on a well meaning 71 year old women who knows little of politics? We soon discovered we need do nothing but stand by and watch the Tories tear themselves apart.

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