Nigel Fletcher is the new leader of Greenwich borough’s Conservatives after opposition councillors met via video conference last night.
The 40-year-old Eltham South councillor was the unanimous choice of his eight colleagues to replace Matt Hartley, who has stood down after five years. The Eltham North councillor Charlie Davis, 25, was elected deputy leader, replacing Fletcher.
Fletcher was first elected to the council in a by-election in Eltham North in 2005, but lost his seat nine years later. He returned to the council in 2018 after winning again in Eltham South.
Greenwich currently has 41 Labour councillors and nine Tories, mostly representing seats in Eltham and New Eltham. There is one vacancy following the resignation of Labour’s Tonia Ashikodi in Glyndon ward after she was convicted of property fraud. Fletcher will earn an extra £18,540 as opposition leader, on top of his councillor’s allowance of £10,410.
Fletcher’s elevation to the top came as his national party leader, Boris Johnson, was admitted to intensive care at St Thomas’ Hospital in Lambeth after his coronavirus symptoms worsened. He pledged to support the council as it battles to deal with the local impacts of the Covid-19 emergency.
He said: “I look forward to building on the formidable achievements of Matt Hartley, who has been an exceptional leader throughout the last five years, and shown during recent weeks the value of responsible opposition as we face unprecedented challenges as a borough.
“The time for fuller statements and future plans will come later, but for now my priority will be to work with Matt on the opposition’s response to the Covid-19 crisis, which remains the overriding focus for the whole council. I pay tribute to all our staff and other key workers who are working so hard to save lives and support the most vulnerable people in our communities. We have rightly given our full support to the council’s leadership during this time, and that support will continue when I formally assume my new responsibilities.”
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Davis, who is also standing for the London Assembly in Greenwich and Lewisham, said: “I’m delighted to be joining Nigel as his deputy with the backing of our colleagues in the council group. I’m really looking to building on the great work we have carried out as a group under Matt’s leadership. “At this time, I echo Nigel’s sentiments and give our backing to the council’s leadership and staff during these difficult times. They have our full support and heartfelt gratitude.”
Unlike Hartley, both Fletcher and Davis campaigned to keep the UK in the European Union, and – like many inner London Tories – they are seen as being to the left of their national party on many issues. Fletcher voted for Jeremy Hunt to be the Tory leader.
Hartley, who will formally remain opposition leader until the council can meet to ratify councillors’ new roles, said: “Amidst this unprecedented coronavirus crisis, normal council politics is effectively on hold and we will continue to support the administration’s response in every way we can. There will come a time, however, when normal politics resumes, and a strong, well-led opposition at the Town Hall is a crucial part of that. I could not ask for a better successor as leader of the opposition than Nigel Fletcher, who I know will work tirelessly for our borough in this new role in the years ahead.”
An academic who lectures at King’s College London, Fletcher knows more than most being in opposition, having founded the Centre for Opposition Studies in 2010 to promote the study of those who have to scrutinise and set out an alternative rather than govern, with Michael Howard and Neil Kinnock as its honorary presidents. He recently wrote about the challenges facing Sir Keir Starmer as Labour’s new leader.
Being in opposition – particularly in a one-party stronghold such as Greenwich – is often a thankless role. The last two years of Hartley’s time as leader were marred by personal squabbles in the council chamber with Thorpe, who has also mocked Fletcher’s academic career in a town hall debate.
However, Hartley can push to achievements from his time as opposition leader, including campaigning for the council to scrap council tax payments for the borough’s poorest residents and pushing for a dedicated fund to improve local parks.
Blackheath Westcombe councillor Geoff Brighty remains the Tories’ chief whip.
Labour had its own leadership election last month, with Danny Thorpe emphatically re-elected. Members of a new cabinet have also been picked, but their positions will not be ratified until the council can meet again.
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