Express & Star

Lib Dem Claire Darke tells why she ditched Tories

Local Government Editor Daniel Wainwright charts the ups and downs of Wolverhampton's coalition.


Local Government Editor Daniel Wainwright charts the ups and downs of Wolverhampton's coalition.

When Lib Dem schools boss Claire Darke dramatically resigned from the coalition of Wolverhampton City Council, shockwaves were sent along all sides of the political divide.

There seemed to have been no warning. The Park ward councillor had been given the Lib Dems' first seat in the ruling cabinet in return for the party keeping the minority administration of Tory leader Councillor Neville Patten in power.

She had seemed content in the role and was able to trumpet the city council's success in getting the £370 million schools rebuilding programme signed off before the Government could scrap it, as it did with neighbouring Sandwell, under budget cuts.

Her final cabinet meeting last Wednesday went without incident - Councillor Darke did not speak once and no-one had any inclination of what she was about to do.

She revealed she could no longer keep in power the coalition after it was rejected at the Bilston North by-election on July 29, giving Labour half the council's seats, before hitting out at the Tories for their planned £70m of cuts to city services over the next six years and claiming they treated their coalition partners with "contempt".

She said: "Our partnerships agreements have been ignored or appropriated by the Conservatives with no due respect given to us as individuals or as a party.

"Plus, the ideological driven policies of the Conservatives to slash and burn our great city's services must not be tolerated.

"The ideological driven philosophy of the Conservatives that 'if we do not legally have to do it - don't do it at all' is the opposite of what any fair, equal and just society should be."

The free city centre bus was axed last year and restoring it was a condition of Lib Dem support. It has not happened.

The opening hours at the city's two tips were also reduced last year and they are now shut twice a week. The Lib Dems want that reviewed. It has not happened.

The removal of concierges out of high rise blocks and into a central hub is also contentious. But it is going ahead despite Lib Dem reservations.

The Lib Dems wanted new office space befitting a party that is in power rather than the windowless "cupboard" they have at the Civic Centre. It has not happened.

Despite this, Councillor Darke's announcement has still come as a bombshell, given the Lib Dems were happy to support the Tories in a loose alliance for two years since Labour lost its majority control of the council in 2008.

Things took a turn for the worse in May this year. While Tories up and down the land were celebrating at putting Labour into second place in Parliament, in Wolverhampton Labour actually won a seat back against the odds. The Tories and Lib Dems both failed to capitalise on their success in 2008 and make gains even in the same seats they had done well in previously.

Park ward, which was expected to return its third Lib Dem councillor, hung on to Labour's Manohar Minhas.

Oxley, which previously rejected two of its three Labour councillors in 2007 and 2008, kept Labour's last seat with new councillor Julie Hodgkiss.

In Wednesfield North, traditionally a swing seat, two places were up for grabs after Tory councillor and solicitor Charlotte Quarmby resigned and left Wolverhampton with her new husband.

The Tories held on to Neil Clarke but second place, and the second seat, went to Labour's Rita Potter instead of the other Tory candidate Catherine Bisbey, who lost out by 100 votes.

That gave the alliance, now a fully-fledged coalition, a majority of two - 31 Tories and Lib Dems to 29 Labour.

It had taken a long time for the coalition to be formed. While Nick Clegg and David Cameron were sitting down to the national Government's first cabinet meeting, the Lib Dems in Wolverhampton led by Councillor Mike Heap were still undecided. It was May 18, almost a week after the national Government started business, before the deal was done in Wolverhampton.

The Lib Dems would get a cabinet seat for Councillor Darke while Councillor Heap would also be invited to attend.

The scale of the risk to Neville Patten's administration became apparent at the annual council meeting and mayor making when Labour proposed its leader Roger Lawrence to run the local authority.

That was defeated by one vote because Tory councillor Gillian Fellows was very ill and died a few days later.

The ensuing by-election in Bilston North was a disaster for the Tories. As Councillor Patten put it himself the party was "well and truly thumped".

Linda Leach became the newest Labour councillor and deadlock ensued.

The only way the coalition could survive was thanks to the timing of Lib Dem Malcolm Gwinnett becoming this year's mayor.

In the event of a tied vote he can call it in favour of the ruling party.

There was hope that the coalition could limp on until next May - or another by-election - and make gains.

Meanwhile it is trying to come up with £70m of cuts over the next six years, on top of £27m it has already made. Those cuts so far have not made the coalition popular.

Voluntary groups have seen their budgets slashed, care home Underhill House was closed and the late Louisa Watts, who was 106 years old at the time, was moved out with her friends in January on the coldest day of the year.

Now the Lib Dems are out, whoever takes the reins has to come to terms with the Government's budget cuts. That £70m is still going to be taken away.

Meanwhile four men and one woman in the Liberal Democrats can decide who they side with.

There will be members of their own party angry at them for ever siding with the Tories and others will accuse them of cutting and running when the going got tough.

Labour and the Conservatives might face every vote not knowing if they will get vital policies approved.

In the meantime Labour can use its vote of no confidence just once this municipal year - something Roger Lawrence does not wish to waste.

So for the time being it is stalemate.

The Tories remain in power until further notice but with five councillors fewer than Labour. No policy can be passed unless the Lib Dems agree to it or abstain. Nobody wins.

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