When Prime Minister Harold Macmillan was asked what the greatest challenge for a statesman was, he answered: ‘Events, dear boy, events’.
And for Cllr Wayne Fitzgerald, leader of Peterborough City Council, those words probably echoed through his thoughts tonight as he scurried past Peterborough town hall en route for a pizza with a friend.
For whilst Cllr Fitzgerald was walking past the town hall, murmuring ‘they’re plotting’ he was only too aware of the disparate opposition councillors who had come together inside the town hall to determine his fate.
That removal of him as Tory group leader, and de facto leader of Peterborough City Council, is no longer in doubt.
The figures, for Cllr Fitzgerald at least, simply don’t stack up.
Timing, they say, is everything and the next full council meeting, scheduled for October 18, is being touted as the moment his opponents will strike and remove both him, and his administration.
It might of course come sooner should Cllr Fitzgerald fall on his sword.
Resignations have diluted the Tory control. As of today, Conservatives have only 23 of the 60 councillors on the city council with the rest split between Labour, Peterborough Firs, Lib Dems, Greens, and Independents.
And tonight, opposition councillors met at the town hall, reluctant to speak on the record but clearly debating the moment, and the strategy, to remove Cllr Fitzgerald.
All a far cry from two years ago.
In language reminiscent of an age long gone – but in reality, it was May 2021 – a local Peterborough website declared the “new leadership of Peterborough City Council was determined in the presence of the full council and the newly elected Mayor of Peterborough, Cllr Stephen Lane of Werrington First Group.
“Last night, May 26, the full council met for the first time in 15 months at the East of England Arena to allow for social distancing as they announced their new leader.
“Mr mayor launched the meeting to request a proposer and seconder in the election of the new leader, which saw Cllr Steve Allen and Cllr Richard Brown respectively nominate Cllr Wayne Fitzgerald to be the leader of PCC.”
Two- and a-bit years down the line, Cllr Fitzgerald is toast, his leadership frazzled by a combination not of misfortune but of barely concealed annoyance (stronger words are available, and often used) and animosity (some might argue revenge) towards any who disagree.
His buoyant, commandeering, and flamboyant style may once have been fashionable – even revered – but in the chamber of Peterborough town hall, and in 2023, it looks awkward, cumbersome, and woefully inadequate to offer unified, economically sensible and community focused solutions.
In short, Cllr Fitzgerald is a busted flush – and it is exclusively of his own making.
The electorate has shown their displeasure, at times annoyance, and on occasions outrage at his political gerrymandering (who can forget the Horsey Bridge business park debacle and the battle to overturn – successfully as it turned out – his planning committee’s original decision to reject it).
But it has been among his own Conservative colleagues that Cllr Fitzgerald has failed to show leadership – and a crop of defections after this year’s May local elections saw the Conservative influence wane (excuse the pun) to the point where his Tory group now only commands 23 of the 60 seats on the city council.
“I’ve been in a toxic atmosphere been victimized, been bullied and the suspension over the last three weeks has been the final straw,” said Cllr Mohammed Farooq. “It has almost killed me.”
If that statement, by a former Conservative councillor this summer didn’t ring alarm bells, there were plenty of others chiming their displeasure.
Cllr Farooq – cleared of the spurious allegation of plotting against his leader Cllr Wayne Fitzgerald – spoke afterwards of the ‘bullying, toxic’ culture within the ruling group that he says nearly killed him.
Cllr Farooq, president of the NW Conservative Association, was re-instated but then quit the Conservative group on Peterborough City Council.
His explosive interview meant another resignation – and an even more troublesome headache – for Cllr Fitzgerald and it didn’t stop there.
By July 7 councillors had quit the Conservative group in the wake of this year’s local elections and even Cllr Fitzgerald was obliged to admit this had “caused some instability” in the Government’s confidence in the city council (not forgetting the Government is monitoring, closely, the council’s financial status and ability to manage its affairs).
If it all seems a far cry from 2021 when Cllr Fitzgerald and his star were in the ascendancy.
In June of that year Cllr Fitzgerald was appointed as Deputy Mayor of the Cambridgeshire & Peterborough Combined Authority – a surprise to many especially as the previous month Labour’s Dr Nik Johnson had beaten the incumbent mayor, James Palmer.
Mayor Dr Johnson believed that in appointing Cllr Fitzgerald it would show that “this is local politics done differently. A successful Combined Authority is one that collaborates across traditional political divides to improve the lives of people across Cambridgeshire and Peterborough.
“I said when I became Mayor, I would put the ‘3Cs’ – Compassion, Co-operation, and Community – at the heart of everything I do, and today is another step in that direction.
“One thing which unites all the leaders of the councils which make up the Combined Authority is a passion for the areas they represent, and none more so than Cllr Fitzgerald, who is a staunch and proud champion for Peterborough.
“We will not realise our region’s potential to level up – to reduce inequalities and increase opportunities and quality of life – if we do not all come together to use our combined energies and talents to make it happen.
“I’m very much looking forward to working with Cllr Fitzgerald, our committee chairs, and all of my colleagues on the Combined Authority Board in a spirit of co-operation and determination to improve every corner of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough.”
The honeymoon was short lived.
By May of last year five board members of the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority had tabled a motion calling upon mayor Dr Johnson to suspend himself.
Cllr Fitzgerald signed, was removed as deputy mayor, and the motion to remove the mayor failed.
Documents filed by the Combined Authority showed four elected Conservative council leaders and the unelected chair of the business board called for a special meeting.
It was a pivotal showdown.
And for some of the ‘gang of five’ trying to oust Dr Johnson it was the beginning of the end.
Tory Ryan Fuller, leader of Huntingdonshire District Council, signed the motion to remove Dr Johnson but then, inconveniently, lost his seat, and de facto the leadership, and in a flash was gone
Cllr Anna Bailey, leader of East Cambridgeshire District Council, and Cllr Chris Boden, leader of Fenland District Council, signed the motion. They remain in office.
But the fifth signature, from Austen Adams, chair of the business board (effectively the former local enterprise partnership), meant that once the motion was lost, he too was gone.
The truly sad thing about all of this is that even his staunchest critics admit to admiring Cllr Fitzgerald for his robust, genuine, and passionate devotion to Peterborough and for wanting the city to punch above its weight and to succeed.
Unfortunately, his maverick style approach to leadership has been his downfall.
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