Clutching his conference folder – helpfully labelled ‘bright blue’ – Peterborough City Council leader Wayne Fitzgerald looked not to have a care in the world as he cosied up to Levelling Up Minister Michael Gove in Manchester on Sunday night. The two were pictured together sharing animated joy as they each settled down for a few days in Manchester for the annual Conservative Party conference.
Whether Cllr Fitzgerald possesses the stamina of the minister is not known – one journalist quizzed Mr Gove at a reception about whether he was heading to a nightclub afterwards and replied ‘Yes’, the same commentator adding ‘what a machine’ after reporting the minister had been spotted out for an early morning run today.
Mr Gove is, of course, a great fan of the city council leader, even mentioning him during a debate in the House of Commons in June when asked about plans for a return visit to Peterborough.
“I can think of few things I would enjoy more,” he told MP Paul Bristow. “I always enjoy visiting Peterborough, which gives me an opportunity not only to work with my hon. Friend, who is such an effective advocate for Peterborough, but to meet the stellar council leader Wayne Fitzgerald, who did so well in the recent local elections—a vote of confidence in Conservative leadership in Peterborough.”
But as Harold Wilson once remarked ‘a week is a long time in politics.
Many thanks to all of our @LGACons councillors who are speaking at fringe events and meetings at #CPC23. To highlight just one example, earlier today, Cllr Wayne Fitzgerald, a member of the @LGAWellbeing Board, spoke at a meeting about community pharmacies. pic.twitter.com/Q8tibRthqa
— LGA Conservatives (@LGACons) October 2, 2023
Events have moved on and as Cllr Fitzgerald knows only too well once he returns to Peterborough and the hubbub of conference has subsided, he will have edged nearer a crucial date for his diary, October 18, and at 6pm meeting of the full city council. It is widely anticipated this will be the moment his critics – a handful of them former colleagues – look likely to spring a confidence vote and remove him, after two years and five months as council leader.
Technically Cllr Fitzgerald won a four-year term as leader in 2022 when, presented with an opportunity to remove him (the Conservatives at that point held only 28 out of the 60 seats on the city council) he was unanimously re-elected.
At the time Peterborough First had four councillors and their support assured Cllr Fitzgerald of victory on the night – but times have changed, political differences have widened, and the momentum for his removal is peaking.
Since May’s local election and for Conservatives, on what at the time looked a promising night for the party, seven Tory councillors have jumped ship, three of them within a fortnight.
There are plenty of clues being dropped by opposition parties that their moment has come.
Last week a prime example came when Peterborough Labour Party published a photo and short report of their mini ‘protest’ in the city to show solidarity to their opposition to road charging, ULEZ, and to “Tory lies and smears”.
They said: “Labour, Lib Dems and independents all came together on this because we agree. And we are big enough to work together when we agree.
“In contrast, despite Boris Johnson being the father of ULEZ in London, the Tories have continued to try and divide Peterborough over the issue with smears.
“Our message to residents is clear: we don’t need ULEZ here, it wouldn’t work here, and no main party supports it.
“Our message to the city Conservatives is also clear: It’s time to put aside the smears and work together for residents.”
If their aim was to put Cllr Fitzgerald onto the back foot, they couldn’t have made it clearer, especially after he – supported by Mr Bristow – had argued they were in favour of such policies and hence why he had vetoed a crucial transport policy by the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority.
In July, Lib Dem leader Christian Hogg (his party has 8 city council seats) delved into the Tories track record on transport in the city and it was a far from complimentary assessment.
He concluded by arguing that the Conservative claims of an agenda by opposition parties for congestion charging or ULEZ “is simply a nonstory and a waste of council time debating a subject that no one is advocating for and even if they were, they would be unable to get approved by the central government.
“I can only assume that the Conservatives are gearing themselves up for a long time as opposition rather than administration. This city’s residents have now recognised that it is time for change and that the Tories have run out of ideas for our city.”
In August Cllr Hogg was back on the attack, warning that he could only assume “the Conservatives are gearing themselves up for a long time as opposition rather than administration. This city’s residents have now recognised that it is time for change and that the Tories have run out of ideas for our city.
“Sorry to disappoint you Wayne, but there is no plan, what congestion that does exist (mainly generated by multiple roadworks schemes being carried out at the same time) simply doesn’t meet the criteria whereby the government would allow for a charging scheme to be put in place.
“The Conservatives are well aware of this. You see in the absence of anything negative to say about opposition parties they have decided to be disingenuous and create a false narrative.”
Last week we saw Cllr Hogg centre stage, but this time more than hinting of rebellious intent.
In an opinion piece for the Peterborough Telegraph, he criticised Cllr Fitzgerald for again vetoing the transport plan, despite have assured opposition group leaders and the city council’s chief executive that he would support it.
“He did not attempt, prior to the meeting, to inform others that he had changed his mind and didn’t give any reasons at the meeting,” said Cllr Hogg.
We're a proud working city – and I couldn't be prouder of our armed forces families and veterans.
— Andrew Pakes (@andrewpakes_) September 22, 2023
Cllr Hogg wondered if “Wayne has realised that his time as council leader is coming to an end, and he is currently looking to secure the position of the Conservative Party’s candidate for the upcoming Combined Authority Mayor in 2025”.
And just to make sure we spot his intent, Cllr Hogg signed off with: “Do you think we need a new leadership with a different emphasis on repairing our broken city which puts residents at the heart of what we do?”
Cllr Hogg will not propose a confidence vote without assurances of support from other opposition groups such as Peterborough First. Their backing of Cllr Fitzgerald has waned, if you can excuse the pun, and with experienced former Conservative councillors amongst their midst they seem poised to stoke the fire.
And then, of course, there is Labour who, after all remain the second largest political group on the council.
Sources within Labour tell me they fully expect Lib Dems to table the motion “and if someone does that remember the red team will always vote to get their blue team out”.
Labour will help load the proverbial political gun, but the same sources tell me they are “not seeking to lead the council: we won’t table the motion but will be part of a broad family”.
If I were a betting man (actually I am) I’d put a fiver on Cllr Hogg for leader.
Each way just to be on the safe side.
The other fiver in my clutches, however, is on Cllr Mohammed Farooq
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