Two Bradley Stoke Councillors yesterday defected to the UK Independence Party (UKIP) in what appears to be a consequence of some nasty in-fighting within the local Conservative Party.
Cllr Ben Walker, a former Bradley Stoke Mayor and District Councillor for the Bradley Stoke North ward, and Cllr Ed Rose, elected to the Town Council in May 2011, were welcomed into UKIP by the party’s national leader Nigel Farage at a public meeting held at the Aztec Hotel.
The defections come less than a week after Cllr Walker was snubbed by his party colleagues when they failed to nominate him for the position of Chair of South Gloucestershire Council, a largely ceremonial position that he was expected to “automatically” inherit, having served as Vice-Chair for the past year.
That episode had been preceded by a smear campaign, first aired in The Bristol Post on 12th May, which exposed embarrassing information about Cllr Walker’s business dealings and his personal tax position.
Those revelations were circulated to the local press by someone claiming to be a supporter of the Conservative party, who advised Cllr Walker’s colleagues to “identify another suitable candidate for the Chairmanship of South Gloucestershire Council”.
Yesterday’s developments began with an interview on BBC Radio Bristol’s Breakfast Show in which Cllr Walker announced his resignation from the Conservative Party. News that he and another local Councillor were to defect to UKIP came a few hours later, conveniently leaving the way open for the pair to be welcomed by their new leader at the long-planned public meeting later in the day.
UKIP defections: How the day unfolded
Cllr Walker’s letter of resignation is understood to have gone out to local Councillors, the local Party and Conservative Central Office early on Monday morning. In the letter, he gave three reasons for his resignation: the Conservative Party’s stance on membership of the EU and other “core Conservative values”; the Government’s programme of austerity, with particular reference to cuts in the NHS; and the smear campaign conducted against him “at a branch, MP and a central office level”.
Shortly after 7:30am, Cllr Walker was interviewed on BBC Radio Bristol, where, when asked “what’s prompted this then?”, he admitted it was “something I’ve been wrestling with for some time”, adding:
“The dangerous thing about the Conservatives is that they understand power, so they know how to manipulate it and use it.”
Asked whether he would now continue as an independent, Cllr Walker replied:
“Well, at the moment, I’m at a crossroads. I don’t know what I’m going to do for sure. All I do know is that I will carry on representing the residents that were kind enough to elect me in 2010.”
He added that he wished to apologise to those who voted for him as a Conservative, adding that he would be “sending out information to my residents explaining why I have done what I have done”.
Shortly after the radio interview had ended, Cllr Walker tweeted:
“I have resigned from the Conservative Party. I can no longer support an elitist, self-serving gravy train, riddled with bully boy tactics.”
Condemnation of Cllr Walker’s move came later in the morning from the Bristol and South Gloucestershire Conservatives, whose spokesperson said:
“Councillor Walker has let down the hundreds of Bradley Stoke residents who voted to elect a Conservative Councillor only last year.”
“The Conservative Party locally will continue to champion the needs and aspirations of the people of Bradley Stoke as it always has.”
Rumours that Cllr Walker was about to join UKIP were fanned when party leader Nigel Farage tweeted at 11:21am, in connection with the upcoming meeting at Aztec West:
“And I’m delighted to announce that we have a Conservative district councillor defecting to us tonight too.”
The news was finally confirmed by the BBC’s Robin Markwell in a tweet at 3:53pm, which also revealed that Town Councillor Ed Rose would be joining Cllr Walker:
“Double defection from Tories to UKIP in South Gloucestershire. @Ben_Walker_SG & Bradley Stoke Town Cllr Edward Rose both make the switch”
“Ben and Ed” duly appeared at the evening’s well-attended (200+) UKIP meeting in the Aztec West Hotel, both wearing smart suits and with Rose even going to the trouble of wearing a UKIP-style purple and yellow tie.
Seated on reserved chairs at the side of the hall, looking like schoolboys waiting to receive a certificate from the headmaster, they patiently waited to be called onto the platform in order to be welcomed into their new party but first had to sit through a speech from the warm-up act, Neil Hamilton (of “cash-for-questions” fame).
When their moment came, the defectors were warmly greeted by South West MEP William Dartmouth and UKIP Party Chairman Steve Crowther, after which Cllr Walker was invited to make a short speech.
The event’s star attraction, Nigel Farage MEP, then strode into the hall, taking time to shake the hands of his party’s latest recruits before mounting the platform to give one of his trademark speeches in which EU President Herman Van Rompuy was the butt of many jokes.
Photos (L-R): Neil Hamilton and Nigel Farage MEP
The Editor Comments: A difficult future for Bradley Stoke Town Council?
Cllr Walker’s defection is likely to lead to him being frozen out of the pre-meeting decision shaping process that he is so used to being a part of in Bradley Stoke – unless he can convince more of his former Tory colleagues to jump ship.
Two Bradley Stoke Conservative Councillors, John Ashe (SGC and BSTC) and Roger Avenin (BSTC) were in the audience at last night’s UKIP meeting, which is unlikely to have gone down well with the local Party, so there may be scope for movement on that front.
The fly in the ointment is Cllr Walker’s younger sister, Charlotte, who was installed as (Conservative) Mayor of Bradley Stoke only last week – in a publicity stunt that now looks to have embarrassingly back-fired. The “Britain’s youngest female Mayor takes office” story failed to generate any headlines beyond Bristol, despite being peddled to the regional and national press, and the presence of a Walker family member at the helm must surely be of concern to the other twelve Tory Councillors.
Will the young Ms Walker now honourably see out her reign as Mayor whilst remaining a Conservative; follow Big Brother Ben to UKIP; be ousted in a vote of no confidence; or simply throw in the towel and resign from the Council? Only time will tell.
As for Cllr Rose, famous for his claim that the overnight switching-off of Bradley Stoke’s street lights violates residents’ human rights, I wonder if he has noticed that UKIP’s ‘Statement of Principles’ calls for the Human Rights Act to be repealed, as a “safeguard against crime”?
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