New leader of the local Conservative group

I was in Chiswick High Rd on Friday, late morning, when the scenario we’ve all become used to happened. A police motorbike outrider pulls up in the middle of a junction and stops all traffic in any direction. The police car follows, then the posh cars with darkened windows, followed by another police car and more motorbikes, all at a steady pace, passing through in their flawlessly executed manouevre to get a ‘principal’ through the traffic and out to the M4. I realised it was probably Theresa May, on her way to Berkshire to go home and have a good cry in private, having made her resignation statement in Downing St some half an hour before.

Not the only deposed Conservative leader left feeling a little sore hereabouts. A press release dropped in to my inbox last week. ‘The Conservative Group of Chiswick Councillors held their annual general meeting last night … Councillor Joanna Biddolph was elected leader of the Conservative group … ” Wait, what? Jo, who was elected for the first time last year, replaces Sam Hearn, councillor for more than a decade. How? Why? What’s gone on within the local Conservative party for that to come about? I wondered.

Photographs above: Cllr Joanna Biddolph, Cllr Patrick Barr, Cllr Sam Hearn

The press release which posed more questions than it answered continued: Cllr Joanna Biddolph said “I would like to thank Councillor Sam Hearn for all his hard work and commitment to the Conservative Group, particularly over this first year with six new councillors joining the team. I would like to build on his success as we work together as a strong and vibrant opposition team to tackle the many complex issues that the residents of the London Borough of Hounslow face in their daily lives”.

How did Cllr Sam Hearn feel about this? Hurt, sore, pissed off is the sense I’m getting. Had he stepped down voluntarily? No. Did he oppose his deselection? Yes. Had he seen it coming? No … and yes. While the end came suddenly, there had been differences. About what? More about style than substance, he says. Though politically they are aligned, their style is very different. While Sam is not quick to rush to press release his every thought and decision, we can expect a deluge of press releases from Jo, he says. She does after all work in Communications. What brought it to a head? He let slip that he would not be standing in the next local elections, regarding himself as too old by then. That was seized upon as a reason why he should no longer be leader now.

When Joanna Biddolph, Ron Mushiso and Ranjit Gill took over as councillors for Turnham Green ward last year, they did so with the complaint on every side that ‘the last lot’ hadn’t done anything much to speak of. They entered the job determined to be energetic and hard working, and they have been so. Jo took up a staunchly anti CS9 position. arguing it vociferoulsy on Twitter, and launched a ‘Chiswick Shops Task Force’ to try and combat the onslaught of business closures. Sadly her plan to make temporary use of the empty Empire House shopfronts hit the buffers last week when Lendlease announced they’d changed their minds and would allow no such thing. She led the initiative to set up meetings about knife crime and the rise of street assaults, getting the deputy commander for the West section of the Metropolitan police to come and explain what action he was taking. They’ve also set up regular meetings with ward constituents, some of whom have never before had a conversation with a councillor.

So far so good. She is admired and respected by many. “She will learn how difficult it is to be leader” says Sam, who has found out the hard way that being in a minority of nine opposition councillors to Labour’s 51 doesn’t afford you with any power and not much in the way of influence either. “The only way you can get anywhere is by working with them” says Sam, something on which Jo Biddolph is not by her own admission keen to do. While other parts of the borough are forging ahead with plans for Business Improvement Districts to bring money into their town centres, she has told me herself that she has resolutely refused to talk to the council leader about her Task Force. If you want support in some piece of neighbourhood bother however, she’s your woman. Her record of dealing with case work is second only to that of Cllr. John Todd.

Councillor Patrick Barr, also elected councillor for the first time last year, was elected deputy leader by the group and Cllr Ranjit Gill was re-elected group whip. Cllr Gerald McGregor (who challenged Sam for leadership of the group last year) seconded the motion to elect Jo as leader. Cllr Barr said: “I am really excited about this change to our group and very much look forward to supporting Cllr Biddolph as group leader and working together, with my colleagues, to continue to ensure that the residents of the London Borough of Hounslow are at the centre of all that we do”.