So Annette Crowe and Bob Barnes have now resigned from Ledbury Town Council. Why? Outwardly, everything in their universe is situation normal. They occupy positions of influence in the council, are bolstered by their regular coterie of supporters, and continue to be the locus of the establishment values in town life. Their grip on the town council seems unassailable. It's business as usual isn't it?
And yet, last evening at the Annual Parish Council, the cunning pair dramatically quit, in Crowe's case, with an intended blaze of theatrical glory. She flounced out, tossing her tresses contemptuously as the crowd jeered and clapped.
The resignation statements were retreads of familiar material: they had been bullied and abused on social media, subject to intimidation and intolerable abuse, have valiantly kept going amid a toxic and hateful atmosphere, have been victims of unfair and unsubstantiated allegations. Sensitive souls both, they had had enough. Oh how the audience felt for them...
Yes well. I'm sure everyone believes them to be righteously sincere in all that they say. We heard the same bullshit playbook when Cllr Jean Simpson threw in the towel, when deputy clerk Maria Bradman resigned, and when Cllr Martin Eager resigned as town mayor. It's called victim-playing.
In each of those cases, there was a real reason why they left, and so it is with Crowe's and Barnes' exit.
People are wondering why, on the eve of the decision of the judicial review which they personally initiated and have been stage-managing, the pair should quit. Why not wait until their expected apotheosis, when their victory has been announced, and the evil Liz Harvey has been crushed? The town council has been repeatedly told by mayor Elaine Fieldhouse, that its case is cast iron, that the legal opinion from their eminent barrister is that they should defend the case to the utmost. Sweet success would be theirs, if only everyone held their nerve, and trusted the inner councillor circle of Barnes, Crowe, Francis, Bradford and Fieldhouse herself.
Can we see the evidence and the legal advice upon which the case rests, implored even Crowe-friendly councillors of the imperturbable Mrs Fieldhouse. 'Oh we'd love to,' she cooed while slipping a delicious little humbug in between those richly painted lips, 'but we cannot risk this being leaked into social media. We cannot risk helping Liz Harvey. You'll have to take our word for it. It's confidential you see'. Enough of the vegetables agreed to suspend their disbelief.
At this point we might consider the law of unintended consequences. Actions which seem logical and reasonable at the time, have an annoying tendency later to result in unforeseen and often unhelpful outcomes. In Ledbury's case, the little inner cabal of decision-makers that make up the 'Standing Committee' assumed plenipotentiary powers in handling the judicial review and in so doing, could maintain tight control on the release of sensitive information. Unfortunately, this meant that not only did they strip themselves of any democratic accountability (and arguably contravened council finance regulations), but they also made themselves solely responsible for everything that has happened since, good or bad.
Using wonderfully contorted logic, Barnes last night tried to wriggle out of this evil position. Straight-faced, he asserted that since the Standing Committee was acting under powers given it by the Full Council, its decisions therefore were effectively being made not just on behalf of the Full Council, but by the Full Council and that every town councillor was fully responsible for what has happened, not just Crowe's and Barnes' little junta. As Cllr Nina Shields said, this was despite that same Full Council being told nothing about its decisions, the costs, the likelihood of success, the legal arguments and the various settlement offers which have been made by Harvey and her team.
Ignoring their cynical bluster about bullying and abuse, the obvious reason Crowe and Barnes walked was because they expect the council to lose the judicial review. Why, if they thought success was imminent, would they not stay and savour their moment of triumph?
It is fair to say that nobody in the courtroom on April 17 thought that the Council's defense was a strong one. The look of weary dismay on the faces of Barnes, Eager and Lynda Wilcox told their own story as Harvey's barrister, Tom Cross, spent the best part of three hours eviscerating his 'learned friend' Lisa Busch QC. She too looked forlorn, especially when politely upbraided by Mrs Justice Sara Cockerill, to remain standing because she had 'further questions'. The judge proceeded to harry the barrister with horribly difficult legal issues for which she had no answer. There is no other way to describe it than that Ms Busch floundered her way through the proceedings, failing to land a single punch on Harvey's Mr Crosse. It was pitiful and slightly embarrassing. At the end of the hearing, Busch looked as broken and dejected as her clients, who had in any case fled the court without stopping to thank their legal team. Could anyone blame them? They had just watched all their dreams disappear.
This would be the obvious reason for Crowe's and Barnes' going. But there may be more. Two days ago, they attended a secret meeting in the Feathers Hotel at which ex-Mayor Allen Conway, Lynda Wilcox and others were present. Were the parish meeting resignations designed as a diversionary strike in anticipation of legal defeat? Or were perhaps the shady forces of the Herefordshire Conservative-Masonic establishment quietly advising that the two should fall on their swords as sacrificial victims, and thereby hoping to avert a complete collapse of the established order? It worked in the case of Lucky Martin Eager a year ago. Why not give those same mucky, ruthless dice another whirl?
We may never know. All that remains is for the judgement to be announced and the inevitable wrangling over costs to be endured.
There will now be at least three by-elections for the town council vacancies. Meantime, a new mayor, deputy and committee chairs will be appointed. If, as seems likely, these will consist largely of reformist councillors, we can expect a furious and sustained backlash from the shadowy old guard. Whatever you say about them, they won't be going quietly.