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Suffolk: Cabinet member Colin Noble pledges he will not challenge Mark Bee again despite close leadership contest

PUBLISHED: 10:42 11 April 2014 | UPDATED: 10:42 11 April 2014

Mark Bee and Lisa Chambers at Endeavour House in Ipswich.

Mark Bee and Lisa Chambers at Endeavour House in Ipswich.

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Suffolk County Council leader Mark Bee scraped home in a tight leadership contest – but was then boosted by a pledge that his opponent would not challenge him again before the next county elections in 2017.

Mr Bee’s margin of victory was much smaller than most of his supporters had expected. All 39 Conservative County Councillors took part in the ballot at the Conservative group annual general meeting.

His victory margin was not officially announced, but Mr Bee said it was less than the 10-vote cushion he had hoped for. Some reports said the margin was as little as three votes.

There were fears that the strong vote for challenger Colin Noble could leave the door open for another contest within the next few years.

However late yesterday Mr Noble contacted members of the cabinet saying he saw this year as the only window for a possible challenge to Mr Bee’s leadership during the current council term.

Next year the group’s AGM will be held just weeks before a general election, and the following year the council will be only 12 months away from its next elections.

Both Mr Bee and Mr Noble denied that the vote represented a geographical split between councillors in east and west Suffolk – although tensions between the two sides of the county have emerged during recent meetings.

Supporters of both candidates insisted that the group would now unite behind Mr Bee’s leadership.

Deputy leader Lisa Chambers saw off a challenge for her job from council chairman Guy McGregor by a larger margin than Mr Bee.

Mr Bee said he would now be speaking to all members of the Conservative group over the Easter period to discuss how it should operate in the future.

There could be changes to make-up of the cabinet in the run-up to the council’s annual meeting at the end of May, with Mr Noble’s position as finance spokesman and that of cabinet member for planning Richard Smith under the microscope. Mr Smith had proposed Mr Noble for the leadership.

Mr Bee said: “It is important that I get together with members of the group and show that I am listening to their concerns.”

During the meeting he promised group members that he would hold monthly “group days” to discuss policy with cabinet members and for one-to-one meetings on specific issues.

Mr Noble did not accept he had had a good result: “If it had been a good result for me, I would have won!” he said.

He said the election had given members of the Conservative group the opportunity to debate the direction in which the county was heading – but now it would unite behind the leadership of Mark Bee.

He did not know whether he would remain in the cabinet: “That is not a decision for me, it is for the leader to decide who sits in the cabinet.”

He did not feel the east/west issue had played a vital role in the debate.

“I’ve said several times I think we are beyond that. I’m also a member of Forest Heath district council and can see that there are some issues better dealt with on a larger scale, like schools and social services, and some that are better handled at a community level.

“I think we have moved away from the unitary or east/west debate.”

Supporters of the two candidates were confident that the group would now unite behind Mr Bee.

Joanna Spicer is a key backer of Mr Bee. She said: “The result was closer than many people had expected, but Mark has made it clear he and the cabinet will be talking to members of the group about increasing their involvement.”

Former deputy leader Jane Storey, who supported Mr Noble’s bid, said: “Hopefully the group will now unite behind Mark. I am disappointed Colin did not win, but now we shall go forward with a united front.”

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