Conservative council elects Labour leader - a strange night in South Ribble

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An ‘extraordinary meeting’ of South Ribble Council lived up to its name when the Conservative-led authority installed a Labour leader to run the borough.

Paul Foster was voted in to the top job, just hours after former leader Mary Green quit the role.

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She had also been ousted as leader of the Tory group in South Ribble last weekend and claims she was the victim of a “character assassination” by her political opponents – while also receiving “no support” from some on her own side.

But Cllr Green’s decision to step down caused chaos at the meeting which had been called to consider a motion of no confidence in her leadership. With that issue decided by default, members were asked to put forward nominations for her replacement.

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Deputy leader of the authority, Caroline Moon, told the meeting that Conservative party rules meant the group could not nominate a new council leader until it had elected a leader of the party – and she then sought to adjourn the meeting until November.

But the absence of nine Conservative councillors meant the group was minus its usual working majority – and Cllr Moon’s request was rejected.

Liberal Democrat leader David Howarth, who had called the meeting, was left unimpressed. “We are here to elect a leader of this council…and this council is not run by the standing orders of the Conservative group,” he said. Cllr Howarth also criticised Cllr Green for a "lack of judgement", but praised her time as mayor describing the outgoing leader as an "excellent ambassador for the borough in that capacity".

Meanwhile, Labour condemned those who had failed to attend the meeting, claiming it was part of a “boycott”.

“Each and every one of the South Ribble Conservative group should resign first thing in the morning,” Coun Foster said. “You are the ruling party and you have a responsibility to lead this council,” he added.

But after Cllr Foster was himself nominated to take over the authority, the Conservatives did put forward their own nomination – Cllr Moon.

Cabinet member Warren Bennett defended the move, telling the meeting that party rules meant only the deputy leader could be nominated. And he denied that there had been a boycott.

"A member could not be proposed from the Conservative group other than the acting leader. Caroline Moon has not just been proposed because [there has been] a Labour nomination. It was the Liberals and Labour who brought this motion, it wasn’t brought by the Conservative Party," he said.

“There are lots of insinuations about why people aren’t here tonight, but there are lots of reasons why people don’t attend an emergency meeting – it’s not in everybody’s diary, it’s just a fact,” Cllr Bennett said.

Cllr Foster was approved as leader by 20 votes to 19, with one abstention - meaning Cllr Moon’s nomination was not formally considered.

Speaking after the meeting, Cllr Foster said: “We’re going to take control of this council and, whether it’s for three weeks or three months, we’ll do right by the residents.”

Cllr Howarth predicted that the "factionalised"Conservative group would call their own extraordinary meeting at a later date to try to reinstall a Tory leader.

Coun Moon was unavailable for comment after the meeting.

The new cabinet at South Ribble comprises Cllrs Paul Foster, Mick Titherington, Sue Jones, Jane Bell, Matthew Tomlinson and William Evans. Individual portfolios will be announced shortly.