‘Normal’ politics are back as Tom Hunt battles with quango and Tory civil war over council elections!
PUBLISHED: 06:00 22 October 2020 | UPDATED: 07:58 22 October 2020
Over the last week there have almost been times when you could park Covid-19 and feel as if “normal” politics had returned to Suffolk with rows about council candidates and an argument between a local MP and government quango.
Let’s start with the row over when the Orwell Bridge changes, to allow slow-moving cars and vans to use it during high winds, will come in.
Highways England (HE) had always said “by the winter.” Given that over recent years all the most serious bridge closures have come between early November and early February, it seemed reasonable to think that would mean the changes would be introduced very soon.
However HE – who have always tended to do things at the speed they want to – were able to use the Covid crisis as an excuse for delays and told members of the new Ipswich Traffic Taskforce last week that the work wouldn’t start until “early 2021.”
Ipswich MP Tom Hunt jumped on this and asked them that if they started in early January that would mean it would be finished by the end of that month, wouldn’t it?
Mr Hunt clearly came away with the impression that he had an undertaking that the work would be completed by the end of January – later than hoped for, but undoubtedly still in the winter.
However after talking to others about the meeting, I’m not sure the HE response was that clear cut – I heard that they said they understood the importance of the bridge and they would do the work as soon as possible.
I know Mr Hunt isn’t as great a fan of Yes Minister as Mrs Thatcher was, but I have to say if that is what HE said it was classic Sir Humphrey: sound emollient but give no concrete commitment whatsoever!
After years, or rather decades, of covering road and rail projects I know that you never believe they’re happening until you see the bollards come out and the bulldozers move in.
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Mr Hunt has good cause to feel angry about the delay after all the promises about getting the work done – but will that cut any ice with the bosses at HE, or for that matter among the senior civil servants at the DfT? Or will they feel the anger of a newly-elected MP in a marginal seat is one of the things that comes their way from time to time?
Meanwhile the Conservatives on Suffolk County Council are getting themselves into an almighty pickle as they try to choose candidates for next May’s elections.
In fact next May is likely to be big year for elections, with votes for the county, the Police and Crime Commissioner, and – in Ipswich and Colchester – for a third of the borough councils.
But it is Suffolk’s county elections where the early news is being made, with attempts by local activists to prevent both former leader Colin Noble and former deputy leader (and council chair) Jane Storey from standing again.
They are close political allies and lost their top positions in early 2018 when Matthew Hicks took over the council leadership. There was some suspicion that there was a concerted campaign to get rid of potential troublemakers this time around.
I have to say that having spoken to several supporters of Mr Hicks, I really don’t think that’s the case – and I understand that he is personally quite upset that Mrs Storey, a long-standing friend of his notwithstanding her serving as Mr Noble’s deputy, is not going to be a candidate again as things stand.
Mr Noble has won an appeal and is back on the candidates’ list – although no one has yet been chosen for individual seats.
Both Mr Noble and Mrs Storey gave a firm, but extremely polite, “no comment” reply when I asked them whether they thought they were being targeted by political opponents. I drew my own conclusion from that!
But I came away thinking that if there was a campaign being waged against them, it wasn’t coming from those currently in charge at the county – but possibly from supporters of them operating an over-zealous campaign on their behalf among the county’s Conservative Associations.
Whatever the truth about this, it has certainly introduced a spark of interest in political life in the county that has been sadly lacking since Covid grabbed all the attention!
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