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Conservative party "in danger of meltdown" after bruising day at polls

PUBLISHED: 10:29 04 May 2019 | UPDATED: 10:29 04 May 2019

Mid Norfolk MP George Freeman. Picture: Keiron Tovell

Mid Norfolk MP George Freeman. Picture: Keiron Tovell

Keiron Tovell

A Norfolk MP has warned the Conservative Party is "in danger of meltdown" after being firmly punished in the local elections.

A scene from the North Norfolk District Council 2019 election count at the North Walsham High School sports centre.. Picture: STUART ANDERSONA scene from the North Norfolk District Council 2019 election count at the North Walsham High School sports centre.. Picture: STUART ANDERSON

The Tories lost 46 seats across the county - and more than 1,300 nationwide - as pro-Remain parties made significant gains.

In North Norfolk the Liberal Democrats stole overall control of the council from the Conservatives, picking up 30 of the 40 available seats.

Mid Norfolk MP George Freeman said it could be a “catastrophic breakdown of trust in politics”.

“This week's election results could not be clearer,” he said. “The Conservative Party is in danger of meltdown - haemorrhaging support from both Leave and Remain voters because of woeful mishandling of Brexit, two years of cabinet infighting and no unifying vision.”

Scenes from the Norwich City Council Election count 2019. Picture: Victoria PertusaScenes from the Norwich City Council Election count 2019. Picture: Victoria Pertusa

He added unless things change fast, Brexit could lead to “a decade of deepening decline, division and debt”.

“This could not be more serious,” he said. “We urgently need real Cabinet leadership”.

While the Tories emerged still in control of all but two councils in Norfolk, the party suffered a disastrous result in the north of the county and came within 11 votes of losing a third.

Breckland, Broadland, Great Yarmouth, South Norfolk and West Norfolk all remain Tory-led councils, while Labour held onto Norwich.

Results being marked up at the North Norfolk District Council 2019 election count at the North Walsham High School sports centre. Picture: STUART ANDERSONResults being marked up at the North Norfolk District Council 2019 election count at the North Walsham High School sports centre. Picture: STUART ANDERSON

The crushing defeat in the north capped off a miserable spell for the group in the district which saw them go from having 33 seats on the council to just six in the space of four years.

What happened in each district?

The Mancroft candidates await the result in the Norwich City Council Election count 2019. Picture: Victoria PertusaThe Mancroft candidates await the result in the Norwich City Council Election count 2019. Picture: Victoria Pertusa

North Norfolk

There was joy for the Liberal Democrats in the north of the county, as they dealt a crushing defeat to the Conservatives to grab overall control of the council.

Just six months after taking control of North Norfolk District Council via a no confidence vote, the Lib Dems ceased an overall majority in resounding fashion - claiming 30 of the available 40 seats.

The live election map taking on a distrinctly yellow hue at the North Norfolk District Council 2019 election count at the North Walsham High School sports centre.. Picture: STUART ANDERSONThe live election map taking on a distrinctly yellow hue at the North Norfolk District Council 2019 election count at the North Walsham High School sports centre.. Picture: STUART ANDERSON

It capped off a miserable four years for the Conservatives in the north of the county, which saw defections, resignations and in-fighting plague to group.

In 2015, the Conservatives won 33 seats on North Norfolk District Council. They have now been left with just six.

Several senior members of the Tory group now find themselves no longer on the council, including group leader John Lee.

Mr Lee, who had represented Suffield Park for more than a decade, said: “A lot of hard-working, long-serving, Conservative district councillors have lost their seats through no fault of their own.

“I am shocked and bitterly disappointed by the results.”

Mr Lee said he felt much of the swing against the Conservatives had been as a result of the national political climate, rather than local issues.

He added: “I think we're the ones who are receiving the bloody nose for the mess that is Westminster.

“Labour and the Conservatives are obviously in a mess because of the Brexit debacle which should have been delivered a long time ago. I guess parties like the Lib Dems, Ukip and whoever else are going to gain from that.”

Sarah Butikofer, leader of the Liberal Democrat group, said the election result was beyond the group's wildest dreams.

She said: “It's wonderful that the people of north Norfolk have put their trust in us and we need to start working straight away to deliver for them.

“People have seen a microcosm of what's going on in Westminster happening on their doorsteps in north Norfolk.

“We've had all the fighting going on up here that's been going on nationally. It's time for a change, it's time to start working together for everyone in North Norfolk.”

Following a boundary review, the number of seats on the council was reduced to 40, with the remaining four seats all going to independent candidates.

West Norfolk

An extraordinary scene unfolded in the west of the county, as the control of the council was decided by just 11 votes.

With only the Woottons ward left to be declared in King's Lynn and West Norfolk Borough Council's election, the Conservative party found itself three seats short of a majority - with three seats up for grabs.

And as if the suspense at the count was not enough, multiple recounts were ordered on the ward after it emerged the majority after an initial count was just three.

Following a boundary review, there were 55 seats up for grabs, with 28 seats needed to secure an overall majority.

In the end, the Conservatives held onto the control of the council by a single seat - winning all three of the seats in the ward.

The final seat, which was claimed by Graham Middleton, was won with a slim margin of 11 votes over independent candidate Paul Bland. This meant - in effect - that the overall control of the council was won by 11 votes.

However, the result still represented a severe downturn for the Tories in the west of the county and was a stark contrast to the 2015 election, which saw the party romp home with 50 of the 62 seats then on the council.

Mr Middleton said: “A majority is still a majority. Obviously, we need to handle to council in the right way moving forward.

“With a smaller majority than we had previously the seats on the committees will be different, things will have to be slightly different but we'll continue with the togetherness approach.”

The Tories faced their strongest challenge from the Independent group, which was agonisingly close to denying the Conservatives their majority.

Independent candidates Alexandra Kemp and Jim Moriarty each hoped the result would prompt the council to adopt a committee system in future, which Mrs Kemp said would make the council more accountable.

There were a number of shock scalps taken within the Tory group, including the defeat of cabinet member Alistair Beales, who was beaten to the post by Independent Bob Lawton in Brancaster.

Ian Devereux almost became another to fall, holding traditionally staunchly blue Snettisham by just three votes against Independent Jan Roomes.

Leader Brian Long said: “It's been a very nervous day right until the last minute.”

Broadland

Liberal Democrats in Broadland capitalised on a national swing away from the Tories and Labour in the local elections, tripling their presence on the council.

The party took eight seats out of Conservative hands, bringing their total number to 12.

It secured new seats in Taverham North, Hellesdon South East, Hevingham, Horsford and Felthorpe and Reepham as well as in its previously held wards, Aylsham, Spixworth and Buxton – although there was a close call in Buxton, where candidate Karen Lawrence had a majority of just two over Conservative rival Tim Catmull.

Steve Riley, Liberal Democrat leader at Broadland District Council, said the party would be “putting people before politics”.

“We are delighted with our result and have hope that we can improve upon that if there are any by-elections,” he said.

“In the past a lot of our vote nationally could have been protest, but in this election I think it is only a small proportion.

“For us, it is because we are hardworking councillors and we try to see through the politics.”

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The new Lib Dem councillors include Caroline Karimi-Ghovanlou, a first-time district councillor who was elected in Taverham North.

She said: “I was a local candidate and people want local candidates.

“Talking to people at the polling station yesterday there is a lot of anger about Brexit. You can see that from the spoilt papers.

“Hopefully this is not just a protest vote.”

There was a double victory for Labour in Sprowston Central, where candidates Breanne Cook and Natasha Harpley together secured a majority of 289 over the two Conservative candidates.

Ms Harpley, another first-time district council candidate, said: “We knew it was going to be really tight – in 2015 there were 19 votes between us and the turnout was higher, and also this time there has been more voter apathy.

“I have been out for months several times a week and put everything into it and it feels like the hard work is finally coming to fruition.”

The Conservatives took 33 of the council's 47 seats – still a strong majority, but less decisive than the 43 seats they held after the 2015 election.

Conservative group leader Shaun Vincent, who held onto his seat in Plumstead with a slim majority of 22 votes over Green Party rival Andrew Cawdron, said: “It is a good result for us considering the national picture. We still have a very healthy majority which will enable us to continue to do good work.

“Our candidates are well known and well respected and their residents know the commitment they give, which has shown through with candidates being returned or in some cases being voted in for the first time.”

Norwich

The Green Party had most to cheer about in the Norwich City Council elections, making four gains at the expense of Labour.

Labour remain comfortably in control at City Hall, but had to endure losses to the Greens in Mancroft, Nelson and Thorpe Hamlet.

Labour did pick up a Green seat in Town Close and leader Alan Waters insisted it was “a good set of results”.

He acknowledged Brexit and the profile of climate change activists Extinction Rebellion had played their part in the election, where all 39 seats were up for grabs because of a boundary review.

The Greens were “over the moon” at the results, which saw former councillors Sandra Bogelein, Lesley Grahame and Paul Neale return to City Hall.

Two gains from Labour in Mancroft and Nelson and one in Thorpe Hamlet means all three councillors in those wards are Green, although Labour did turn Town Close completely red, by taking one seat from the Greens.

Denise Carlo, leader of the Greens at City Hall, who retained her Nelson seat, said: “I am absolutely over the moon. I was quite worried as I didn't know if I'd retain my seat, but now I have nine colleagues.”

She said the Greens had benefitted from the high profile of Extinction Rebellion at a national level - and from dissatisfaction over Brexit.

Mr Waters said it was sad that hard-working Labour councillors had lost their seats, but said: “Given the turbulence elsewhere in the country, these are a good set of results for us. People in Norwich have voted for a Labour administration, with two thirds of the seats.

“It's been quite an extraordinary election, with a dash of Brexit, ward changes and some highly competitive battles in some of the Norwich South seats, but we have come through and I'm pleased with the majority we have.”

He said the Brexit situation nationally had made it an “invidious” position for the two main parties when knocking on doors.

Liberal Democrat leader James Wright said he was pleased to have retained their three Eaton seats and to have improved their vote share.

The political make-up of the council is now Labour 27 (-4), Green Party 9 (+4), Lib Dems 3 (no change). The turnout was 34.9pc, with 358 spoilt papers.

South Norfolk

outh Norfolk has its first Labour councillor in more than 20 years - but remains a Conservative stronghold.

School teacher Jeremy Rowe was elected in Loddon and Chedgrave with 632, so was not present for the moment he was announced as the party's first South Norfolk councillor since 1995.

Andy Driver, former chairman of the South Norfolk Labour group said: “We are hoping to liven things up on the council and have some serious policies. It is certain going to be an interesting few years.”

However, overall, the election saw the Conservatives hold on to control of the council, though with four fewer seats.

Group leader John Fuller said: “There was a number of complicating factors this time - the boundary changes, more multi-member wards, as well as the general change in the political climate.

“It is very difficult to make comparisons between this time and last, but we are very pleased given the circumstances.”

Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats took their share of the council up to 10 seats, with a trio of gains.

Great Yarmouth

More than 950 ballot papers were spoiled in the Great Yarmouth borough elections - an increase of more than 1,00pc on the previous year, as frustrations boiled over into the polling station.

It was this statistic - along with a fractional turnout that told the tale of this election rather than its actual result.

In terms of control of the council, nothing has changed, with the Conservatives remaining the largest party - albeit with two fewer seats.

Meanwhile, the Labour group retained its 15 seats, with the make-up completed by two independent councillors and UKIP's Carrie Talbot.

Graham Plant, leader of the Conservative group, said: “I'm delighted - it was always going to be close, especially with a few independents that suddenly came out of nowhere and threatened us. The whole point of the council is to work for the people of Great Yarmouth and that involves us working together.

“If we do that we're going to have a really good four years.”

Trevor Wainwright, Labour group leader said: “It is a shame [Labour made no gains], but we came very close in Yarmouth North and Bradwell North. It is going to be a very difficult council and very difficult to manage.”

A standout result came in the Fleggburgh ward, where independent candidate and chairman of Filby in Bloom, Adrian Thompson, 54 caused an upset. He defeated Broads Authority chairman Haydn Thirtle with a majority of 899.

He said: “It is a good result and a good turnout [in the ward]. 58pc is first class. I stood as an independent because people should come before the politics. That is the message we have been putting across.”

Breckland

A national trend was bucked in Breckland Council, as the Conservative group was able to escape from the election with minimal damage to its majority.

The party emerged with its overall majority still in tact, with just two fewer seat at the end of the day than it went into the election with.

Group leader William Nunn said: “I expected a very challenging day but I think to return 37 councillors is fantastic.”

Meanwhile, a piece of Green history was made in the district as the party grabbed its first seats on the council for decades.

Dereham Neatherd now has a Green councillor in Philip Morton while Timothy Birt will represent the party in Saham Toney.

Mr Morton said: “I honestly did not think I would get elected and look forward to providing an alternative to the present views [on the council].”

The council's make-up now sees 37 Conservative councillors, six Labour, four Independents and two Greens.

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