LoPro BoJo booed at Royal Cornwall Show – staged photo in Tiverton

Normally keen to have the cameras follow his every move, and to offer a soundbite, he tried to keep an uncharacteristically low profile. At the Royal Cornwall Show earlier, the closest he came to meeting the public, he was yet again booed and heckled about Partygate. In the end, he did some staged photos in Tiverton with Hurford and, you guessed it, a cake.

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“There’s been a democratic vote, he has had a third mandate now, let’s move forward.” In the wake of Boris Johnson’s narrow no-confidence vote, those were the words not of a Tory MP, but a would-be Tory MP.

But for all her apparent support, Helen Hurford, the party’s candidate for the Tiverton and Honiton by-election in Devon, notably refused to say whether she would have herself voted to keep Johnson in post. “It’s irrelevant, it’s happened, he’s here,” she told Radio Exe.

Hurford’s not exactly ringing endorsement of the Prime Minister is perhaps unsurprising given his deep unpopularity over both his dissembling about Partygate and his sluggish response to the cost of living crisis.

What was striking too was that Johnson’s own visit to the Devon seat today was very different from his usual made-for-TV trips outside London. Normally keen to have the cameras follow his every move, and to offer a soundbite, he tried to keep an uncharacteristically low profile. At the Royal Cornwall Show earlier, the closest he came to meeting the public, he was yet again booed and heckled about Partygate. In the end, he did some staged photos in Tiverton with Hurford and, you guessed it, a cake.

(No selfie with Alison Hernandez and a police station. These photos could be anywhere away from the public eye – Owl)

With the Conservatives facing another possible by-election defeat at the hands of the Liberal Democrats later this month, it’s no wonder that Hurford and Johnson are nervous. Despite the Tories’ huge 24,000 vote majority from 2019, the bookies have already installed Lib Dem contender Richard Foord as the favourite.

Lib Dem leader Ed Davey was on his fourth visit to the constituency today, with a not-so subtle photo-op of his own, focusing on calls to stop the Tories allowing sewage to be pumped into local rivers and beaches. In a by-election triggered by an MP caught watching porn in the Commons, and with a backdrop of Sue Gray’s findings of a red wine-stained and vomit-flecked No 10 during lockdown law-breaking, the message to voters to clean up British politics was unmistakable.

Friday report: Tories face tough test as they try to hang on to Tiverton and Honiton seat

Still no reported sighting of “Big Dog” – Owl

While it remains perfectly possible the Conservatives could retain the ultra-safe seat of Tiverton and Honiton this month, it would have given Boris Johnson cause for concern if he had been able to listen to Colin Richey’s discussion with a Lib Dem canvasser on Thursday lunchtime.

Peter Walker www.theguardian.com 

A self-described lifelong Conservative – “I’m a Tory, my father was a Tory, and I believe in rightwing stuff” – the retired journalist began the chat on the doorstep of his neat semi-detached house on the outskirts of Tiverton adamant nothing could change his mind.

Just 10 minutes later, the 87-year-old had conceded to Eleanor Rylance, a councillor from east Devon, that he did not think Johnson would lead the Tories into the next election – and he actually preferred Jeremy Hunt. Furthermore, the Lib Dems’ candidate for the 23 June byelection was more impressive than their Tory counterpart, and even his cleaner was trying to persuade him to switch votes.

“Maybe I can be convinced,” Richey said eventually. “I suppose I’m still thinking about it.”

Johnson was visiting the constituency on Friday afternoon but no details of his visit were made public in advance. The first confirmation that he was actually in Devon was a tweet from a National Farmers Union official that said Johnson had been there discussing food security.

Losing the constituency in one of the two byelections taking place a week on Thursday would be a significant blow to Johnson’s authority, given it has been Conservative since its creation 25 years ago, with the party enjoying a 24,000-plus majority in 2019.

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That majority was delivered by Neil Parish, the MP since 2010, who remains popular among many locally despite the unusual and murky grounds for his resignation – admitting he had watched pornography on his phone in the Commons chamber.

“I mean, he was a bloody fool,” Richey said. “If he’d been looking at naughty pictures anywhere else it wouldn’t have damn well mattered. But in the chamber? It’s like looking at them in church. That said, I know a lot of farmers, and they thought he was marvellous. He did a lot of good work for them.”

Richey exemplifies an apparent shift in opinion, even in such rural, Brexit-backing seats, that goes beyond one-off scandals and the aftermath of Downing Street parties: a sense of Conservative voters being taken for granted.

Similar sentiments cropped up repeatedly in two other shock byelection losses for the Tories over the last 12 months: first in the commuter belt seat of Chesham and Amersham; then in the even less likely terrain of North Shropshire.

The Lib Dems won both seats and, as with North Shropshire, they have positioned themselves as the main challengers in Tiverton and Honiton, despite finishing a distant third in 2019, largely by announcing this is the case.

With Labour focusing on the other byelection on 23 June, in Wakefield, the two opposition parties have in effect chosen to fully fight one battle each.

The leader of the Liberal Democrats, Sir Ed Davey, accused Boris Johnson on Friday of hiding from the people of Tiverton and Honiton.

Davey said: “The fact is he’s not talking to ordinary people. No one seems to know where he is. He might be coming down here but people aren’t seeing him. He’s hiding away from people and I think that says it all. He’s taking this constituency for granted. We’re picking up people who are fed up of being taken for granted.”

The Lib Dem leader spent the morning in Axminster testing the quality of the water in the river before meeting electors on Honiton High Street.”The momentum is with us. There’s everything to play for. We can win here,” he said.

Helen Morgan, who won North Shropshire for the Lib Dems in December, overturning a near-23,000 majority, noted the parallels with her race but played down predictions that the Devon seat would also fall, calling it “a mountain to climb”.

“The Conservatives have been quicker off the ground this time,” she said, after joining the canvassing session along with another MP, Munira Wilson. “We’ve even seen them delivering leaflets here today. It’s going to be a harder fight.”

Clearly spooked by byelection losses and conscious that a double defeat on 23 June could reignite a challenge to Johnson’s authority, the prime minister made a campaign trip to the constituency on Friday, as did Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, part of a planned “blitz” of cabinet visits.

In the Lib Dems’ favour, their chosen candidate, Richard Foord, is a former army officer and prominent local community volunteer who, party aides joke, was not actually created in a laboratory to appeal to soft Tory voters but simply looks as if he was. After a long tour of the Tiverton campus of Petroc higher education college alongside Wilson, the party’s education spokesperson, Foord echoed the scale of the task.

“There are still plenty of lifelong Conservatives here who will not change their habits,” he said. “But I’m also seeing some traditional Conservatives who can’t abide Boris Johnson and his government, and want to send them a message.”

A narrow Tory win would ease the pressure on Johnson, but could just as easily mask the extent of the malaise the party faces in such longtime strongholds.

Stevie Jenkins, running chores in the centre of Tiverton, is one step further along even than Richey. Also a previous Tory voter she is definitely voting Lib Dem this time, in part because she likes Foord, who she says “looks like an honest man”.

“Lots of people who voted Conservative for the first time in 2019 won’t vote Conservative again,” Jenkins predicted. “It’s not so much the parties, it’s the division, the bickering. I was a nursery group manager, and it reminds me of the children. It takes me right back.”

Spot the BoJo: Boris Johnson rumoured to be in Tiverton and/or Honiton

Story also carried in the Telegraph.

Will he be accompanied by Alison Hernandez?

Owl awaits the inevitable selfie.

Colleen Smith www.devonlive.com 

On-the-ropes PM Boris Johnson is believed to be heading to Honiton today to back the Tory candidate standing in this month’s Tiverton and Honiton by-election. It follows the resignation of disgraced former MP Neil Parish in April after he admitted to watching pornography in the House of Commons.

The PM is rumoured to be planning a walkabout in Honiton today but no media invites have been issued. Local Conservative press officers last night hinted that there would be a visit today by a Tory bigwig. Today on twitter political commentators added to the rumours.

UK Politics Briefly said: “Boris Johnson is expected to be campaigning in Tiverton and Honiton in Devon today.”

The Conservatives are defending a majority of more than 24,000 votes bequeathed them by Mr Parish in the 2019 general election. Voters in Tiverton & Honiton will go to the polls on Thursday, June 23.

Helen Hurford is the Conservative candidate with businesswoman Liz Pole, who also ran in 2019, for Labour and former army major Richard Foord is the Lib Dems’ candidate.

Reform UK, formerly known as the Brexit Party, has named Andy Foan as its candidate, with Gill Westcott for the Green Party, Frankie Rufulo of the For Britain Movement, Ben Walker of UKIP and Jordan Donoghue-Morgan of the Heritage Party also on the ballot paper.

Forget the “Magic Sauce”, now it’s the “Green Machine”

Extract from the Prime Minister’s Housing speech 9 June:

We have the tools we need to get on top of rising prices.

The global headwinds are strong.

But our engines – the great, supercharged, ultragreen marine propulsion units of the UK economy – are stronger, we will get through it.

Can anyone translate this for Owl?

Devon on target for net zero, but is success accidental?

The council reduced its carbon emissions by 53 per cent between 2013 and 2021 – a considerable way towards the 2030 target of 70 per cent. It plans to offset the remainder through projects like tree planting.

Ollie Heptinstall, local democracy reporter www.radioexe.co.uk 

This week’s cabinet meeting heard the reduction was partly down to projects such as installing heat pumps and replacing older boilers, as well as the ongoing replacement of streetlighting with more efficient LEDs.

But the pandemic has also had an impact. Council staff are now “comfortable using video conferencing rather than travelling for meetings,” the report says – eliminating emissions that would otherwise have been produced.

Cabinet member for climate change, environment and transport Councillor Andrea Davis (Conservative, Combe Martin Rural) said school transport now accounted for half of the county council’s emissions and described the progress towards the target as “really, really amazing.”

In a statement, she added: “Over the next months and years, we will continue to reduce emissions where we can through projects including increasing the proportion of electric vehicles in our fleet.”

However leader of the opposition, Councillor Julian Brazil (Lib Dem, Kingsbridge), is unimpressed.

“I’m sorry to say that I find this a particularly uninspiring and insipid report, relative to the problem that it’s trying to address and the consequences of if we do nothing,” he said.

“We seem to be patting ourselves on the back that we’ve cut our carbon dioxide emissions by 53 per cent. Most of those weren’t because we were trying to cut our carbon dioxide oxide emissions, they just happened to be as a consequence of other things.

“It’s not proactive enough. It’s not taking it seriously enough.”

He added: “The county has got to do better if we’re meant to be providing leadership to the rest of the county in respect of the climate change and biodiversity emergency.”

Cllr Brazil referred to his recent attempt to ban the use of neonicotinoids [an insecticide] on farms in the county. Councillors instead called on the government to “carefully review its consideration of emergency use applications,” which include neonicotinoids.

“Worthy words. Pathetic actions,” Cllr Brazil concluded.

In response, Cllr Davis said in a statement: “We have made significant progress and cut our emissions by 53 per cent since 2015, from things like buildings, transport, streetlighting, and I’m confident that Devon County Council will be net zero before 2030.

“Streetlights account for almost 40 per cent of our emissions and we have converted 77 per cent to low-energy LEDs.

“Our buildings and all 68 farmhouses on our farms estate are being retrofitted and we are leading nationwide work on reducing the carbon intensity of highways maintenance in areas including road materials and signs, distance those materials have travelled, fuels used on site and how long those materials will last.

“We are replacing our fleet with electric vehicles, with 12 more arriving next month. And through changing the way we work and new technology, accelerated during covid, we have reduced business travel emissions by more than half.

“And as a founding partner of Devon Climate Emergency, the carbon plan – the county’s roadmap to net zero – will be published in August. It will show every business, organisation and resident what we all have to do to ensure that Devon becomes a net zero county by 2050 at the latest,” she said.

Tameside council chief resigns following tweet about Conservative voter

Inappropriate comments led to the resignation of the Council CEO. – Owl

Josh Halliday www.theguardian.com 

A long-serving council chief executive has resigned after he posted a tweet expressing surprise that a Conservative voter could show “compassion and empathy”.

Steven Pleasant, the head of Tameside council in Greater Manchester, made the remark about an audience member on the BBC’s Question Time before last month’s local elections.

In the now-deleted post sent from his work account, @tmbc_chiefexec, he wrote: “She was good. Tory voter with compassion and empathy for others. Who knew!”

Pleasant, who had run the council since 2009, was also the authority’s returning officer and oversaw the local elections on 5 May – despite anger from the area’s Conservatives.

His tweet was due to be discussed at an extraordinary full council meeting on 14 June but Pleasant announced in advance that he would step down.

Pleasant apologised a few days later, saying the post was “not considered” and he “should have worded any sentiments very differently”.

However, a report by the council concluded that he had breached the statutory code for local authority publicity, in which officials must remain strictly impartial.

The report by Tameside’s monitoring officer, Sandra Stewart, stated: “A politically restricted officer, such as pre-eminently a statutory officer, must not express themselves publicly in a way that appears to have the intention of affecting public support for a political party.”

The report said the breach was aggravated by its “proximity” to the local elections six weeks later, which Pleasant went on to run as returning officer, but concluded that “no further action” was required.

Nonetheless, Pleasant resigned in a letter to councillors, MPs and council staff on Wednesday.

He said it had been “a privilege” to serve as chief executive and cited “many achievements”, such as the authority being voted council of the year and the NHS Tameside and Glossop clinical commissioning group being rated “outstanding”.

Pleasant was paid £220,000 a year, including pension contributions, to run public services for the area of about 225,000 people near Manchester. His salary is in line with the chief executives of many other large local authorities but higher than the prime minister’s £164,000 a year.

Gerald Cooney, the Labour leader of the council, said Pleasant had been a “great servant of Tameside and the local NHS”.

Pleasant and Tameside council have been contacted for comment.

Report describes ‘fear and intimidation’ at Northumberland county council

Another Council, another investigation – Owl

Northumberland county council operated in a “climate of fear and intimidation” so extreme that senior officers and councillors were constantly making freedom of information (FoI) requests to dig dirt on each other, a report has found.

Helen Pidd www.theguardian.com 

An independent governance review into the council found it had become “paralysed” due to the “extraordinary” resources devoted to processing almost 5,000 FoI requests made within three years, many from senior officers and councillors.

A second report into the local authority found that its chief executive, Daljit Lally, had been given illegal expense payments of £40,000 each year, on top of her £190,000 a year salary, to run the council’s international consultancy with clients in China and the United Arab Emirates.

The two reports were discussed at an extraordinary meeting of Northumberland county council (NCC) on Wednesday.

The first, by independent consultant Max Caller, who investigated financial mismanagement at Liverpool city council last year, concluded: “NCC needs to undergo a fundamental reset of its philosophy, processes, and relationships … There is little substantive trust in the most senior officer levels of the council and there exists a climate of fear and intimidation.”

He found an organisation so paranoid that all council papers are now watermarked with names because so many had been leaked. Employees “described in harrowing terms how they had been treated extremely poorly by senior officers at NCC”, he said, adding: “Being able to speak truth to power is an essential component of local government and power is held by both members and top officers, but this did not appear to be either encouraged or even tolerated.”

The council is “paralysed due to large volumes of procedural issues which demand an extraordinary resource”, he wrote, saying: “There have been 4792 FOIs in three years and 307 subject access requests (SARs), many from senior officers and members. One SAR for a member of staff took one colleague two and a half months to complete. The review team were informed that staff had been instructed by senior officers to prioritise some staff and member SARs, the result being that SAR requests, for example, [on behalf of] children looked after, had been delayed.” People can make a SAR to access their personal data.

He also found an unusually large number of staff signed non-disclosure agreements after leaving Northumberland. This meant they could not speak to anybody about the circumstances of their employment with and exit from NCC.

In addition, he uncovered unusually high settlements paid to staff leaving the council, with the organisation spending £2.2m on payoffs between February 2013 and February 2019.

Some settlements were suspicious in their timing, he suggested: “One interviewee described how a colleague informed them that they were retiring in a few months, and they would hand over their responsibilities to another colleague. The interviewee was surprised to then find that the colleague had left within a few days of this conversation. This happened to be immediately prior to the government rules on a cap in exit payments [in the public sector] of £95K coming into force.”

A second report, by NCC’s interim chief finance officer, Jan Willis, found that an international healthcare consultancy – Northumbria International Alliance (NIA) – set up by the council in 2017 to provide commercial income had operated illegally by not being incorporated as a business.

“In entering into international contracts directly, NCC acted unlawfully, and it therefore follows that the expenditure incurred in delivering those contracts was also unlawful,” concluded Willis.

She was particularly critical of the decision to give Lally £40,000 on top of her chief executive salary to consult for NIA. “The international allowance was not paid as a result of any decision taken by a properly authorised decision maker,” concluded Willis, instructing the council’s payroll team to cease the payment with immediate effect.

Willis’ report, known as a section 114 report, does not “seek to attribute any individual blame or responsibility for actions or omissions that have led to the unlawful expenditure identified in this report and should not be read as such”.

Sex crime councillor investigation: no sign of it starting

CEO says it’s “inappropriate” to rush

Ollie Heptinstall, local democracy reporter www.radioexe.co.uk 

East Devon District Council (EDDC) has been urged to speed up a report into how jailed former councillor John Humphreys was able to receive an honorary title while under investigation for sex crimes against children.

Two months on from a full council meeting asking for an independent report, work is still going on about options for how it will be done.

Councillors want a report from chief executive Mark Williams “at the earliest opportunity” but some speakers at this week’s cabinet meeting expressed frustration at how long it is taking, with publication set for July.

Mr Humphreys, who also previously served as mayor of Exmouth, is 10 months into a 21-year prison sentence for sexually assaulting two teenage boys in the early 1990s and early 2000s.

He was first questioned in 2005 but police did not find sufficient evidence for a prosecution.

Following a complaint by a second victim, he was arrested in 2016 before being released under investigation on suspicion of sexually assaulting the two boys.

Nothing was made public and Mr Humphreys continued to be a councillor until May 2019, eventually being awarded the honorary title of alderman by by EDDC in December that year.

The award of alderman is made by many councils to former members in recognition of their civic contributions. In East Devon, aldermen are entitled to free parking in the council’s car parks and may continue to represent the council at some functions.

Following Mr Humphreys’ conviction in August 2021, the council voted to remove his title and to review the process of selecting aldermen.

That review, by EDDC councillors, has so far only looked at peripheral matters such as whether aldermen should keep their free car parking permits. 

The new report will be independently conducted and delve deeper into how he came to receive the award.

Speaking at Wednesday’s [8 June] cabinet meeting, Alderman Roger Giles said the decision to bestow the award on Mr Humphreys after he had been arrested had “tarnished the whole system of recognising the work of former councillors.

“Of course, the tarnishing of the award of honorary alderman status is of infinitely less consequence than the effect on the victims of the abhorrent crimes of John Humphreys,” he added.

Mr Giles, who represented Ottery Town as an independent, said he was attending the meeting “to ask what EDDC is doing about what is undoubtedly the greatest scandal that has enveloped EDDC for very many years.”

He was critical of the seven weeks that had elapsed since councillors voted for a report, with no visible progress.

“What kind of message does this send to the wider world about the seriousness and urgency with which EDDC is treating this matter?” Mr Giles asked.

Councillor Jess Bailey (Independent, West Hill and Aylesbeare) was also “very disappointed by how long it’s taking,” adding after the meeting: “The council needs to stop dragging its heels and urgently commission the report given the importance of the issue.”

In response, chief executive Mr Williams said he has spoken to a barrister for legal advice and was awaiting his opinion.

“When I have that opinion, I will prepare a report. But if this is to be done properly, it needs to be done in a measured way and it also needs to be done in full knowledge of the legal powers and legal constraints that apply to the council.

“So my advice to cabinet is that I will bring a report in July. Pushing the timetable earlier is inappropriate and you may well end up making an erroneous decision.”

Mr Williams added: “You need to go into this with your eyes open in terms of the length of time it’s likely to take, the potential cost and also the implications legally of what we can or can’t do.

“Rushing something as important as this is, in my opinion, inappropriate.”