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Tories on the attack, but own goals flood in

Tories on the attack, but own goals flood in

🕔04.Jul 2012

THERE was an endearing moment at the latest Birmingham City Council meeting when Tory and Liberal Democrat leaders Mike Whitby and Paul Tilsley nuggled up together for a cosy chat.

They left their respective seats to chinwag in a sort of no man’s land in the council chamber, between the area reserved for the depleted Conservative and Liberal Democrat councillors.

For a brief moment, it was just like old times when the two were running the council.

It was common then to see an agitated Coun Tilsley scurry round to whisper something in Coun Whitby’s ear, usually in response to trouble being caused by the then Labour opposition.

The results of the May council elections, which gave Labour a stonking majority, put paid to eight years of the Whitby-Tilsley coalition. It will be a long time before it is glad confident morning for the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in Birmingham again.

On the evidence so far, the Lib Dems seem to be taking to the new order rather more easily than their Tory chums. This is only natural. The Liberals have had a lot of experience of life in opposition.

The Conservatives don’t do opposition very well. They are aghast at Labour’s new energy under a re-charged leader, Sir Albert Bore. And they bristle when every cabinet member begins a speech with a little homily about the financial mess they inherited from the coalition.

Mike Whitby asked me how long I thought the new leadership would play the ‘inheritance’ card.

I reminded him that the Tory-Lib Dem coalition spent at least three years complaining about the mess they had been left by Labour.

Coun Whitby hit back, insisting that the coalition had to deal with a £30 million budget shortfall when it took over from Sir Albert in 2004. That was far worse than the £20 million ‘black hole’ that Sir Albert is claiming he inherited from the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. Oh, dear.

The strategy employed by Conservatives and Lib Dems at this month’s council meeting was intended to embarrass Labour. But the tactics backfired badly with several own goals which managed to raise fresh questions about the competence of the 2012-13 budget approved by the coalition in February.

Lib Dem councillor Ernie Hendricks demanded to know whether Labour would fund the annual Birmingham Garden Show. Perhaps he was unaware that the coalition budget removed a  £400,000 funding allocation for civic events, thereby placing the garden show and other events at risk.

Tory Deirdre Alden hoped to put the new Labour administration in a difficult spot by complaining about a 40 per cent increase in the cost of the meals on wheels service for disabled and elderly people.

Cabinet member Steve Bedser had the answer, pointing out that the service was privatised under the coalition and that the new operators were handed a £500,000 subsidy to keep prices down. That “sweetener” lasted for two years and is due to expire in September. The coalition knew this and did nothing to replace the subsidy therefore ensuring that prices would rise, Coun Bedser added.

Coun Alden was at it again shortly afterwards, attempting to embarrass Labour over Sir Albert Bore’s two jobs – leader of the council and chairman of the University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Trust – for which he is paid handsomely out of the public purse.

This was simply poor politics. If there is anything calculated to unify the Labour group it is an outright public attack on their leader, even if a number of councillors don’t think it is right that Sir Albert should have both jobs.

By putting down a motion for public debate Coun Alden succeeded only in buying Sir Albert more time. He expected to be attacked by his critics at the Labour group meeting, but any attempt to force Sir Albert’s hand over the hospital issue is off the agenda now until September at least.

As for the debate itself, the Conservatives found themselves in a difficult position having to defend former coalition cabinet members who also had another full time job while pursuing their council duties. Claims that this was different because they were employed in the private sector sounded rather hollow, as did attacks on Sir Albert’s “morality”.

GIVEN that Sir Albert Bore claims to work about 90 hours a week, it is only natural that he has the time to write his own answers to questions from Tory and Liberal Democrat councillors rather getting officers to respond for him.

But the latest indications suggest that the council leader is operating on a short fuse.

A series of questions criticising the “undemocratic” nature of allowing officers rather than cabinet members to take spending decisions up to £500,000 were based on a false analysis of the new constitutional arrangements, Sir Albert insisted.

The questions were politically motivated, he claimed. Gosh, who would have thought such a thing.

Sir Albert continued, accusing Coun Mike Ward of “warped logic”, while the Liberal Democrat group was behaving like lemmings engaged on “suicidal missions”.

So, let’s get this straight. All spending decisions will be overseen by the relevant cabinet member and details will be posted on the councils Democracy in Birmingham website. That’s fine, except we are now six weeks into the new Labour administration and no decisions have been posted.

 

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