Everyone knows national politics pivots on what happens in Stoke-on-Trent, so I'm going to assume all readers are familiar with the local situation. If not, read here. So yes, Stoke-on-Trent, a place in which the labour movement was bred in the bone narrowly rejected Labour in May and gave enough space for the City Independents, the Tories, and UKIP to secure a majority and take over the council. Sadly, the indies' pledges to sink billions into a tram system running the length of the city, and their promise to organise a Stoke package holiday with compulsory oatcakes have hit the cutting room floor in the wheeling and dealing that brought the coalition into being. What an appalling betrayal.
One development that raised eyebrows, apart from the stupid and failed attempt to make an ex-BNP councillor mayor, of course, was the decision to make the leader of the Conservative group, Cllr Abi Brown, the deputy leader of the city council. It wasn't really a necessary move. With only seven councillors to the City Indies' 14, and with the moldy old kippers on two, the Tories were bound to get into bed with this most unappetising of senior partners. A chance to kick Labour out of office in an ostensibly Labour city, what Tory wouldn't give their right arm for that? There wasn't any political necessity to grant the number two role to Abi, so can that be read as tribute to her brains and nous, or more evidence of council leader Dave Conway's poor grasp of political manoeuvring?
It's a bit of both. There isn't much substance to Stoke-on-Trent's Conservatives. They poll well enough, but the party has a tiny number of activists. The repeat appearance of the same old faces on their local election literature tells you everything you need to know. But, interestingly, it's very much a one-woman band. Despite the return of former council leader Russ Irving to the chamber, there's no doubt who's in charge. This isn't because Abi is an authoritarian personality who keeps her troops in line by threatening to extract their toenails. Put it like this. When there is a Tory group meeting, she enters the committee room and the collective IQ instantly quadruples. I wouldn't like to say her colleagues are thick, but when she was on holiday recently the group was utterly paralysed and decisions were delayed until her return. It must have been awful not know who to ask permission for a toilet break too.
What's this got to do with the City Independents? Quite a bit, as it happens. Having previously scrutinised local council officers up close, I know there are some pretty wily operators among the senior management cadre. They had to be. For a period time, nine parties were represented in the council chamber and political infighting rose to such a pitch that the salaried officers had to run the city themselves. Since the return of stable politics in 2011, some have proven unwilling to cede their overstretched authority to councillors. Some have made purchase orders without running it by the relevant cabinet member. Some "forgot" to mention a brewing industrial dispute in local authority-run schools. Dodgy and controversial planning decisions have been made by officials instead of going to councillor-led committees. I could reel off yet more examples, and one of the unspoken stories of the previous Labour administration was a ceaseless running battle between senior councillors and senior council staff.
How have the new administration adapted to this situation? Unsurprisingly, they're running rings around the council leader. Having approached him for opinions and decisions to be made, procrastination and prevarication are the non-answers. How different this is from the man-of-action portrayed on countless unreadable leaflets and frothing internet rants. Here is where Abi steps in. Being political to her finger tips and in ownership of the requisite grey matter, rather than just being a nice person who wants to do nice things, council officers have adopted the practice of going to her first. "So Cllr Brown, do you think these children's centres should be cut now or cut later?" I'm sure you get the drift. If she says yes off they go to Dave Conway's office, and the patter goes something like "What do you think about this option Council Leader? Cllr Brown thinks this is the best." And nine times out of ten, the officers leave with the decision she recommended.
This begs the question, who leads the council? I think we can justifiably ask that question. Is it Council Leader Dave Conway and Deputy Council Leader Abi Brown, or is Dave bopping a merry granddad dance to Abi's Tory tune?