What’s at stake in the battle for the leadership of Suffolk County Council?

Matthew Hicks. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

Matthew Hicks. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

The fact that Suffolk County Council cabinet member Matthew Hicks was considering a bid for the leadership of the authority has been one of the worst-kept secrets in the county’s political circles over the last few months.

Current county council leader Colin Noble. Picture: LUCY TAYLOR.

Current county council leader Colin Noble. Picture: LUCY TAYLOR.

So it will not have come as a huge surprise to his colleagues when a letter from Mr Hicks outlining his reasons for standing landed in their inboxes at the start of the week.

And make no mistake, this is a very serious challenge. Mr Hicks is a very accomplished and successful politician who would not be taking a step like this if he was not sure in his own mind that he could win on May 11.

The omens do look good for him. He’s promising a very different kind of leadership to current standard-bearer Colin Noble.

Mr Noble is a very “tribal” politician. He loves political knock-about and launched a fierce attack on other parties at last year’s annual council meeting, the first after the county council election.

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It was quite clear that did not go down well with many of his councillors, especially the new members, who did not realise until that moment quite what a bear-pit they had entered.

Many came from a district council background – and many districts have less politically-charged arguments in their debating chambers.

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Mr Hicks, in his letter talking about being a leader to motivate, not dominate, and in talking about working collaboratively will certainly tap into these sentiments.

He is a politician who is highly thought of by both his colleagues and council officers – his handling of potentially-difficult fire reforms was seen as sure-footed and as the politician who successfully saw the commissioning of Suffolk’s incinerator he can claim to know how to deal with potential political banana-skins.

Opposition politicians think they would probably be able to work easier with a Conservative administration led by Mr Hicks – but I have heard it said that at least they know where they stand with Mr Noble, and don’t really expect to get anything from him!

So Mr Hicks is a formidable opponent and I can see why

Having said that, it would be daft to ignore the value that Mr Noble’s position as incumbent leader gives him – especially as an incumbent leader who led his group to a 29-seat majority at the council just a year ago.

While he is a combative Conservative who is very suspicious of any politician from another party, he has been effective in pushing through changes at the authority – and is an expert in the social care functions of the council.

There are other issues that are likely to be playing on the minds of Conservative county councillors.

One is Mr Noble’s pre-emptive strike last month commissioning Res Publica to produce a report on unitary council options in Suffolk.

That really, really angered his fellow council leaders in the county – six of whom are Conservatives and two (Waveney leader Mark Bee and Mid Suffolk leader Nick Gowrley) are also members of the county council.

Many county councillors who are members of their local districts are also angered about this move – especially as the decision was taken without any consultation with other councils.

So how are the numbers likely to shake up come the election? Mr Noble has a loyal base among some members of his cabinet, led by deputy leader Jane Storey. They will be busy trying to persuade their colleagues that Mr Noble’s electoral success last year means he deserves to stay on and put into place the manifesto he wrote.

Mr Hicks also has a substantial team behind him. Former county council leader Mr Bee has already pledged his support and many members of his former team will immediately fall into line.

Mary Evans has been a highly-regarded scrutiny committee chair and will bring her own support across to back Mr Hicks as his nominee for deputy group leader.

The unknown quantity is, of course, how many of the new councillors who were upset by Mr Noble’s attack on opposition politicians last year and then again at subsequent council meeting will actually vote against the man who engineered their election triumph.

Or will they just see the local government elections of 2017 as a good year for the Tories with the collapse of UKIP – and believe anyone could have led them to a substantial victory in true-blue Suffolk?

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