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Lord Whitby’s long goodbye is bad news for Bobby Alden’s Tory leadership hopes

Lord Whitby’s long goodbye is bad news for Bobby Alden’s Tory leadership hopes

🕔04.Nov 2013

There’ll hardly be a dry eye in the house when Lord Mike Whitby tells the Birmingham council Conservative group that he won’t be defending his Harborne seat at the 2014 election.

The Tory leader since 2003 has decided, reluctantly apparently, that even he cannot juggle commitments in the House of Lords with running the main opposition party on the city council, although if HS2 was in place and cutting commute time to a mere 50 minutes, you never know.

Chamberlain Files has discovered there is a sting in the tail to Whitby’s announcement, which is likely to be made at tonight’s group meeting.

Whitby intends to carry on as leader until the bitter end, leaving the thorny matter of his replacement to be decided at the first gathering of Conservative councillors after the May 2014 election.

This is seen as bad news for deputy Conservative leader Robert ‘Bobby’ Alden, who has pretty much headed up the Tories since Whitby and his Lib Dem coalition lost control of the council to Labour in 2012. Coun Whitby has been noticeable by a lacklustre attendance record, and his silence when he does turn up at meetings, leaving Bobby valiantly to take the battle to the socialists.

Were Whitby to quit as leader now, the odds are that Bobby Alden would get the job.

But Alden’s chances are likely to be damaged considerably if the leadership election is delayed until next year. The 28-strong Conservative group may be reduced to a rump of about 22 councillors by then as Labour’s hegemony continues apace, leaving the group corralled around its Sutton Coldfield heartland.

This is not good for Alden, who is regarded by veteran Suttonites as a bit of an upstart. Not only is he ridiculously young, not even 30 for goodness sake, but his shaggy beard, bohemian manner and greenish eco-warrior politics create suspicion, fear even, in the genteel suburban Tory drawing rooms.

And as far as Whitby’s supporters are concerned – there are still some around – Alden Junior remains faintly tainted with the backbench rebellion of 2009 that resulted in Randal Brew challenging for the leadership.

Alden wasn’t directly involved in the attempted putsch, but later became deputy leader off the back of a movement to give more power to Tory backbenchers fed up with what they regarded as Whitby’s imperious nature. His promotion was also influenced by a formidable reputation as an elections organiser, having built up a Conservative power base in the once safe Labour territory of Erdington.

Naturally, Bobby Alden’s unlikely success in Erdington merely drew attention to the abysmal Tory performances in other parts of Birmingham where votes continue to leak away from the party at council elections. That, in turn, raised questions about the effectiveness of Coun Whitby’s leadership and his commitment to grass roots politics.

One person thought to be very much welcoming a leadership election next year is former Tory councillor Ken Wood, a close friend of Whitby’s, who is returning to the council in 2014 having been selected for the ultra-safe seat of Sutton New Hall.

Insiders believe that Wood is intent on pitching for the leadership, a hunch reinforced by his selection in New Hall which involved defeating Gary Sambroke, a close ally of Bobby Alden and like Alden a Conservative moderniser.

All of this has discomfited the Aldenites, and infuriated one senior Birmingham Tory who, needless to say, doesn’t wish to be identified but had this to say: “If the leadership election was now, Bobby would just win. I don’t think he’ll win in May however. Too many of the old-school councillors think him too young, too cocksure and lacking in gravitas.”

He described Coun Whitby’s determination to continue as leader until next May as “an insult to voters”, adding: “I suppose it’s revealing how outlandish they think the prospect of us winning is, we don’t even have a candidate for leader. If we don’t take ourselves seriously, no one else sure as hell will.”

Whitby’s decision to stand down also opens the race to replace him in Harborne – a ward that used to be as safe as houses for Tory candidates, but is now highly marginal. Labour candidates, including cabinet member James McKay, have beaten Tory councillors in the ward at the 2011 and 2012 elections and the party is odds on to make it a hat trick in 2014.

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