Three weeks of woe culminate in councillors leadership resignation

BY Ian MacKellar ONE ill-judged telephone call that need not have been made may prove to have deprived Cambridgeshire of more than £500million. In the short-term it has deprived the council s leader of her job. Councillor Shona Johnstone told Conservative

BY Ian MacKellar

ONE ill-judged telephone call that need not have been made may prove to have deprived Cambridgeshire of more than £500million. In the short-term it has deprived the council's leader of her job.

Councillor Shona Johnstone told Conservative group colleagues on Saturday morning that she was resigning as leader of Cambridgeshire County Council. Within hours the news had been leaked to the media. It was the third such leak in a week.

It was the culmination of three weeks of woe for Cllr Johnstone, who took over in May after 10 years of leadership by Cllr Keith Walters, from Sawtry, who this week took back temporary political control of the authority at the group's invitation.

His resignation earlier in the year prompted chief executive Ian Stewart to decide the time had come for him to retire. At the end of July, the 60-year-old former professional footballer hung up his boots, and the search for a successor began.

At length, three candidates were short-listed, including Shona Johnstone's preferred candidate, Gordon Jeyes, who runs children's services at Shire Hall. But the selection panel decided by a narrow majority to offer the £200,000-a-year post to Mark Lloyd, chief executive of Durham County Council, who indicated that he would accept.

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Cllr Johnstone initially accepted the "unanimous" decision. On reflection, however, she realised they might have a difficult relationship, and made an error so serious that her resignation was almost inevitable. She phoned Mr Lloyd. She insists she did not ask him to turn the job down, but she must have told him of her unease.

She pointed out at the weekend that the relationship between leader and CEO is crucial to the smooth running of the organisation, and therefore that she acted with the best interests of Cambridgeshire at heart. There is no reason to doubt that, but she should still not have done it.

What she should have done was to have expressed her unease to council officers and ask them to sort it out.

Ironically, the call need probably not have been made at all. The council's constitution provides for the offer remaining conditional subject to there being no well-founded objections to the appointment by a member of cabinet and also to approval by the full council.

All political parties acknowledge that Shona Johnstone is an extremely able and immensely likeable woman, a mother of three secondary school children, church organist and former Home Office civil servant, who became the county's youngest-ever leader on May 15 this year, aged 44.

Since then she has pushed the county forward - "like a tornado," according to one source - but some of her Tory colleagues do not like the pace of change. She still has many friends in the party group, but enough sceptics to have made the last few weeks reminiscent of the forum in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar.

Quite who is playing Brutus is not clear because, as Mark Antony said: "Brutus is an honourable man". That is not an epithet that Cllr Walters would apply to whoever leaked information about the party's turmoils.

"If I get the proof of who leaked the [confidential] names of the candidates, his feet won't touch the ground," the former RAF officer toldme.

In spite of Conservative protestations of party unity, what lies behind her - perhaps temporary - downfall is a deep division, bordering on schism, over her pressing ahead with a possible congestion-charging régime for Cambridge city in the next decade.

Something has to be done about the traffic. It is already congested, and 48,000 new homes by 2021 are estimated to threaten the city's streets with more than 20,000 additional cars every weekday morning. Doing nothing about that is not an option. So, she asks, do you ask the Government for £500million to improve public transport across the county as additional relief of congestion in the city and market towns or do you breathe in the fumes and take the financial hit without grant?

She says, and this newspaper agrees, that that is a no-brainer.

The timing may be awkward but, because Cambridgeshire is so far ahead in its evaluation of possible congestion charging, it is one of only four or five councils in the running for a share of a £200million pot of Transport Innovation Fund money in 2008/09 and a lot more thereafter. And it would still not be irrevocably committed to road pricing.

Another quotation from Julius Caesar is instructive here: "There is a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune."

Many of her colleagues lack her vision. They see no further than the political backlash from Cambridge-dwellers unwilling to change their comfortable, but polluting, lifestyles. Others see the idea as a stealth tax - and Tories don't do taxes. That is arrant nonsense that flies in the face of history, including the history of John Major's Government, which first seriously put forward the possibility of charging polluters for the damage they do to the environment. Others still want to be convinced that the business case is robust, when the decision to ask for Whitehall cash had to be rushed.

It is ironic that it could be the Liberal Democrats on the county council that save the Tories from the forces of reaction on this issue. The Conservatives are reputedly split more or less 50:50. Labour, which opposes the charge because all its seats are in the city, has too few members to count. So the Lib Dems' 22 members could determine the policy, if they decide to back the plan. They would want to see it modified, although they are surely behind it in principle.

Apart from that and the conspirators, Cllr Johnstone remains popular, well-regarded and well-liked. She may yet re-emerge as a potential leader, but possibly not before the full council elections in May 2009.

Fellow cabinet member, Cllr Victor Lucas, who represents Warboys, said: "I'm sad. She has brought enormous vigour and energy and really focused the council on the issues it has needed to address. The council will be the worse for not having her ability and talent."

Liberal Democrats are also sorry to see her go. Cllr Peter Downes, of Brampton, who said the party would not be pursuing a complaint it made last week to the regulatory Standards Board for England, said: "She made a very serious misjudgement and there was no alternative but to resign. The leader of a council cannot afford to make a mistake like that.

"But it's a pity Shona has gone, because she represents the more enlightened wing of the Tory group.

"The real loser is the county council. It's sad for her personally, but we have lost the prospect of a good chief executive. I hope it does not deter people from applying to Cambridgeshire in the future.