Colin Noble has to battle to heal Tory divisions at Suffolk County Council after being elected as new leader
As Colin Noble prepares to take over as leader of Suffolk County Council, Political Writer Paul Geater assesses the task ahead of him.
The new Conservative leader at Suffolk County Council has a tough job on his hands healing the divisions that have opened up at the authority over the last year.
Colin Noble was elected leader of the Conservative group at the council yesterday – and will take over as leader of the authority at its annual meeting on May 21.
But it immediately became clear he will have a battle on his hands to bring together his group – supporters of outgoing council leader Mark Bee feel that some of the backers of Mr Noble have undermined the leadership over the last 12 months.
After the result Mr Bee himself said: “I have wished him luck. I think he is going to need it. I think the divisions in the group are going to be difficult to resolve and I hope he can find a way to deal with that.”
Mr Noble did not see the election as being a major change for the council. He said: “I don’t really see it as the start of a new era as we are a group.
“The policies that Mark has been implementing as leader have absolutely been the policies of the group and they will continue.”
He said he wanted to be “a facilitator for the group” as a whole, with less emphasis on “the leader and the cabinet and the backbenchers”.
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He added: “I think as a council we need to mirror how people go about things.
“And I think as a council we need to work with our communities, work with our district and borough councils to deliver the services that people value and I think that in the past we didn’t quite do it in a way that mirrors the way people like to do things in Suffolk. And that’s what I really want to focus on.”
Last year Mr Bee retained the group leadership by three votes in the face of a challenge by Mr Noble. However the challenge did not go away and, to some degree, hostility towards the leadership and some members of the cabinet continued.
Last August a spat broke out between cabinet member for adult care Dr Alan Murray and veteran councillor Joanna Spicer – a firm ally of Mr Bee – over the chairmanship of the council’s health and wellbeing board.
One critic of Mr Bee told me at that time that “He’d be out by this time next year.”
Over recent months the pressure on Mr Bee and his cabinet has continued from backbenchers who feel that he had not consulted them enough over major council policy.
Ironically this pressure came as Mr Bee’s standing within the business community – and among Conservatives outside the county council – continued to rise.
Mr Bee himself thought it would be better to pull back from the top job and allow someone else – Jenny Antill – to unite the group.
However over the Easter weekend other cabinet members decided they could not serve alongside Mrs Antill as leader.
It is also expected that several members of the current cabinet would not be prepared to work in a body led by Mr Noble, even if he asked them.
They feel that a contingent of Mr Noble’s supporters undermined Mr Bee last year as council leader to such a serious degree that they could no longer support him.
And that raises the question – will Mr Bee’s supporters be tempted to do to the new leader what they feel was done to their man over the last 12 months? Mr Noble will have to act fast to ensure the group does come together.
One thing he does have in his favour is the fact that over the next four weeks county councillors will be back in their home patches campaigning for the general and local elections.