A cobbler takes on the city council

Allegations of theft, racism, harassment: Labour Durham would like to keep them all quiet. But counc

In Durham cathedral the other day, technicians were cluttering the place with cables ready to film J K Rowling's book Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. White cobwebs hung in the triforium arches high above the echoing nave. Snow lay crisp and even in the cloisters. A pair of live owls with fly-on parts looked startled, as owls do. Tourists think this is the finest show in town, but the citizens of Durham - including members of its Labour-run city council - know better.

Ten minutes' walk across Palace Green takes you to Claypath, a steep street of shops and pubs and the premises of The Durham Cobbler (est 1854) and its muscular proprietor, Tony Martin, 37. For the past 18 months, Martin has waged war against the power of this Labour heartland. His www.cobblers2thecouncil.tsx.org website has become the clearing house for news of the alleged misdeeds of the city fathers and civic officials. These include fraud, blackmail, racist harassment, theft - and, in the case of the council's head of recreation (who later resigned), romps with four women employees, recorded on nine hours of tape found in his swimming-pool locker. Labour has ruled Durham for generations and, when you browse through the cobbler's website, you begin to understand why Tony Blair, as recently reported, may be sympathetic to the idea of breaking such baronial strongholds by introducing proportional representation for council elections.

Martin's shop window, plastered with newspaper cuttings ("Council chiefs face theft quiz"; "City chief arrested in land deal probe"; "Durham council are corrupt and racist"), attracts attentive crowds. Occasionally, flattened against the glass like a banshee with steering trouble is a solicitor's rocket. One of them warned, on behalf of three Labour councillors, that, if the notices remained two days after receipt of the letter, "proceedings will be served upon you personally without further correspondence".

The cobbler's problems started two years ago when the Prince Bishops shopping centre opened just down the hill, its developers laying double yellow lines along Claypath. Martin's business (which has halved since then) was affected because many of his customers are elderly and could no longer park outside his shop.

"The shop's been here as a cobblers since 1854," Martin says. "My father took over in the Seventies and I've worked here 24 years . . . We used to do all the miners' hobnail boots, and we've got pensioners in their eighties who came in here with their parents as a little child. When I saw Colin Shearsmith, the city council's chief executive, about the yellow lines, he said they'd been put in for safety reasons and that my answer was to leave Durham and set up somewhere else. I got a bit heated and said: 'The council's got a vested interest in this to make sure the new centre works. You'll regret the day you did this. I'll make you pay for it.' He said: 'What can you do about it? You're just a back-street cobbler.'"

One cannot vouch for the accuracy of this story; Shearsmith refused my request for an interview. But what is beyond dispute is that Shearsmith, along with a local businessman, Robert Fulton, was arrested (and later exonerated) by police investigating allegations of fraud over £60m worth of city development schemes.

Martin says that attempts have been made to silence him. Police were urged to prosecute him under the 639-year-old Justice of the Peace Act, on the grounds that someone might throw a brick through his window. They refused to do so, but confirmed to me that such a request had come from city councillors whom they declined to identify.

Other councillors have tried to sabotage a new CD, Old Durham Town, recorded by Martin with a local band, Sugarwood, and based on the original Sixties song by Roger Whittaker. They complained to Whittaker's management group, BMG in London, that the Martin version was "political" and ought to be stopped. The cobbler played it for me on the jukebox in The Big Jug, the pub next to his shop. One verse goes: "I've been in business over a hundred year/Told all the council about my fear/ They just growled and start to sneer/They said 'Son, you betta leave this town'."

Even the local MP, Gerry Steinberg, has been dragged into the dispute. His office is directly opposite the cobbler's shop, and Martin says that he taunted Steinberg in the street about Shearsmith's arrest. The fiercely individualist MP went nuclear and called him "a fucking arsehole".

Steinberg, MP since 1987, confirms this and also that drugs squad officers (without his prior knowledge, he insists) used his office in Claypath to spy on the cobbler's shop after receiving allegations - which were never substantiated and which Martin describes as "ludicrous" - that it was being visited by drug pushers.

Martin showed me a letter that the MP had written to a senior councillor, Bill Kellett, about Kellett's role in asking the police to investigate the city's financial affairs. Steinberg called Kellett's action "scurrilous and beyond the silly infighting that has been taking place in the Labour group", and invited him to consider his position.

Kellett is a former Labour group leader. When he held that position, four councillors launched a raid on his drinks cupboard, which later led to a police inquiry. Kellett told me that, when the police interviewed him about the incident in 1997, he did not press charges because of the imminent general election. He also explained why he took his concerns about the council's finances to the police, rather than to his Labour group colleagues. "I never forget," he said, "that when I took over as leader, a very senior councillor, with 30 years in the party, looked me in the eye and said: 'Get what you can, any money you can, while you're leader. If you don't, someone else will.'"

Labour's latest troubles concern allegations of racism, which are being investigated by the party's regional organiser, Brian Thistlethwaite. The central figure in the row is the council's former chief safety officer, Abiodun "Mac" Williams, who is due to become chairman of the city's magistrates bench in January.

Earlier this year, Williams accepted a £6,500 council pay-off and gagging order two days before he was due to give evidence at an industrial tribunal. A five-page document, detailing his complaints, has now been posted on Martin's website. The cobbler claims that Thistlethwaite told him: "You put that stuff in your window and your feet won't touch the ground. We'll have you in court."

This version is vehemently denied by regional headquarters. "Mr Thistlethwaite recalls telling Mr Martin that what he put in his window was nothing to do with the Labour Party," a spokesman said.

Williams's testimony paints an extraordinary portrait of a council riven by institutionalised drinking and public altercations, which, on one occasion, led to a fight between two recreation officials. When Williams questioned them, one said angrily: "It has nothing to do with you, you black bastard." Other senior officers are said to have referred to Williams as "the blackie of Byland Lodge [a council office]" and "the dark cloud".

Then there was Mildred Brown, the council's deputy leader. When she saw Williams looking gloomy, she is alleged to have said: "What's the matter with you, you black bastard?" Yet Williams's own document then records: "I replied telling her she was 'completely out of order'. . . From the look on her face, Cllr Brown appeared to be devastated at what she had done. She immediately apologised and put her arm around my shoulders and, with tears in her eyes, said: 'I would not hurt you for the world'. . . I did not even think of taking the matter further, as I was more than satisfied that no hurt was intended."

When I telephoned Brown about the Williams account, she said: "It's been alleged I made that remark, sir. I'm not saying anyone's telling truth or lies."

Shearsmith issued a statement through the council's press officer. "There is a confidential agreement which the friends of Mac Williams are turning into a farce to try to keep some life in a story which is more than ten months old. Durham City Council has kept to the agreement and cannot reply in any detail to questions. There was a year-long investigation into the claims by Mr Mac Williams . . . alleged racist remarks were part of that investigation and not one of them was substantiated during a very lengthy and detailed investigation."

The mystery remains as to why Williams drew back from the tribunal at the last minute, thus saving the council possible public embarrassment. Williams cannot comment, but there are hints that he was advised to lay off because his union did not want to damage its relationship with people on the council.

It seems unlikely that the council has heard the last of this affair. The curtain of damning paper still flutters in the cobbler's informative window, and even in the party itself there are voices saying "enough". Joe Anderson, a senior Labour councillor and twice mayor of Durham, told me: "There's people at the town hall caused all this and still working there. I went to school with some of them and Mac was left on his own to deal with this muck. What they did to him was filthy. I can tell them this: I've been a councillor for 28 years and I've got a big dossier in a safe place. When I pack it in, I'm going to let it all out."

As for Martin, he is standing as an independent city councillor next year and is looking forward to the access he will get to official files.

"There are a lot of people in Durham who basically think the council's let them down," he says. "They're that frightened the way the council's run things, they'll not speak up, and I've been a sort of outlet for them. It's given people a lot of hope and courage. They are coming forward and standing up to be counted."

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The humbling of Theresa May

The Prime Minister has lost all authority. The Tories will remove her as soon as they feel the time is right.

Being politicians of unsentimental, ruthless realism, the Conservatives did not linger in the grief stage of their collective disaster after the general election. Disbelief, too, was commendably brief.

Currently, their priority is to impose some sort of order on themselves. This is the necessary prelude to the wholesale change that most see as the next phase in their attempt at recovery, which they all know is essential to their career prospects – and believe is vital to a country whose alternative prime minister is Jeremy Corbyn.

For that reason, talk of Theresa May enduring as Prime Minister until the end of the Brexit negotiations in two years’ time is the preserve of just a few wishful thinkers. Some sort of calm is being established but the party is far from settled or united; there is a widespread conviction that it cannot be so under the present leader.

Elements of the great change have been executed, as Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, May’s former advisers, will testify.

However, this is only beginning, as shown by the debate in the media about how long May can survive in Downing Street. There is dissatisfaction about elements of her recent reshuffle, but it is quieted because few believe that some of the more contentious appointments or reappointments will last more than a matter of months. Her colleagues are also alarmed by the meal she has made of doing what was supposed to be a straightforward deal with the DUP.

The climate in the party at the moment is one in which everything – jobs, policies and, of course, the leadership – will soon be up for grabs. Debate over “hard” and “soft” Brexits is illusory: anyone who wants to be Conservative leader will need to respect the view of the party in the country, which is that Britain must leave the single market and the customs union to regain control of trade policy and borders. That is one reason why the prospects of David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, are being talked up.

Some of May’s MPs, for all their hard-mindedness about the future, speak of feeling “poleaxed” since the general election. Even before the result changed everything, there was dismay about the bad national campaign; but that, it was felt, could be discussed in a leisurely post-mortem.

Now, instead, it has undermined faith in May’s leadership and credibility. “The social care disaster was key to our defeat,” an MP told me. “It wasn’t just that the policy damaged our core vote, it was the amateurishness of the U-turn.” A more seasoned colleague noted that “it was the first election I’ve fought where we succeeded in pissing off every section of our core vote”.

The limited ministerial reshuffle was inevitable given May’s lack of authority, and summed up her untenability beyond the short term. Most of her few important changes were deeply ill judged: notably the sacking of the skills and apprenticeships minister Robert Halfon, the MP for Harlow in Essex, and a rare Tory with a direct line to the working class; and the Brexit minister David Jones, whose job had hardly begun and whose boss, Davis, was not consulted.

George Bridges, another Brexit minister, who resigned, apparently did so because he felt May had undermined the government’s position in the negotiations so badly, by failing to win the election comprehensively, that he could not face going on.

Much has been made of how Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, was marginalised and briefed against, yet reappointed. Patrick McLoughlin, the party chairman, suffered similarly. Conservative Central Office was largely shut out from the catastrophic campaign, though no one got round to briefing against McLoughlin, who kept his head down – unheard-of conduct by a party chairman in an election.

As a political force, Central Office is for now more or less impotent. It has lost the knack of arguing the case for Conservatism. MPs are increasingly worried that their party is so introspective that it just can’t deal with the way Corbyn is spinning his defeat. “An ugly mood is growing,” one said, “because militant leftism is going unchallenged.” That cannot change until May has gone and the party machine is revived and re-inspired.

***

Nobody in the party wants a general election: but most want a leadership election, and minds are concentrated on how to achieve the latter without precipitating the former. One angry and disillusioned ex-minister told me that “if there were an obvious candidate she’d be shitting herself. But most of us have realised Boris is a wanker, DD isn’t a great communicator and is a bit up himself, Hammond has no charisma, and Amber [Rudd] has a majority of 346.”

On Monday a group of senior ex-ministers met at Westminster to discuss next steps. It was agreed that, with the Brexit talks under way, the most important thing in the interests of restoring order was securing the vote on the Queen’s Speech. Then, May having done her duty and steadied the proverbial ship, the party would manage her dignified and calm evacuation from Downing Street.

Those who agree on this do not always agree on the timing. However, few can make the leap of imagination required to see her addressing the party conference in October, unless to say “Thank you and goodnight” and to initiate a leadership contest. Many would like her out long before then. The only reason they don’t want it this side of securing the Queen’s Speech is that the result, as one put it, would be “chaos”, with a leadership contest resembling “a circular firing squad”.

That metaphor is popular among Tories these days. Others use it to describe the ­apportioning of blame after the election. As well as Timothy and Hill, Lynton Crosby has sustained severe wounds that may prevent the Tories from automatically requesting his services again.

Following the Brexit referendum and Zac Goldsmith’s nasty campaign for the London mayoralty, Crosby has acquired the habit of losing. And then there was Ben Gummer, blamed not only for the social care debacle, but also for upsetting fishermen with a vaguely couched fisheries policy. These failings are becoming ancient history – and the future, not the past, is now the urgent matter – yet some Conservatives still seethe about them despite trying to move on.

“I haven’t heard anyone say she should stay – except Damian Green,” a former minister observed, referring to the new First Secretary of State. Green was at Oxford with May and seems to have earned his job because he is one of her rare friends in high politics. He is regarded as sharing her general lack of conviction.

Older activists recall how the party, in 1974, clung loyally to Ted Heath after he lost one election, and even after he lost a second. Now, deference is over. Most Tory activists, appalled by the handling of the campaign, want change. They would, however, like a contest: annoyed at not having been consulted last time, they intend not to be left silent again.

That view is largely reflected at Westminster, though a few MPs believe a coronation wouldn’t be a problem, “as we don’t want a public examination of the entrails for weeks on end when we need to be shown to be running the country effectively”. Most MPs disagree with that, seeing where a coronation got them last time.

With the summer recess coming up, at least the public’s attention would not be on Westminster if the contest took place mostly during that time: hence the feeling that, once the Queen’s Speech is dealt with, May should announce her intention to leave, in order to have a successor in place before the conference season. It is then up to the party to design a timetable that compresses the hustings between the final two candidates into as short a time as compatible with the democratic process, to get the new leader in place swiftly.

Some letters requesting a contest are said to have reached Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbenchers. One MP told me with great authority that there were eight; another, with equal certainty, said 12. Forty-eight are needed to trigger the procedure. However, engineering such a contest is not how most Tories would like to proceed. “She has had an international humiliation,” a former cabinet minister said, “and it is transparently ghastly for her. Then came the [Grenfell Tower] fire. There is no sense our rubbing it in. I suspect she knows she has to go. We admire her for staying around and clearing up the mess in a way Cameron didn’t. But she is a stopgap.”

MPs believe, with some justification, that the last thing most voters want is another general election, so caution is paramount. None doubts that the best outcome for all concerned would be for May to leave without being pushed.

Her tin-eared response to the Grenfell disaster shocked colleagues with its amateurishness and disconnection. “I’m sure she’s very upset by Grenfell,” someone who has known her since Oxford said. “But she is incapable of showing empathy. She has no bridge to the rest of the world other than Philip.” Another, referring to the controversial remark that torpedoed Andrea Leadsom’s leadership ambitions last year, said: “You would get shot for saying it, but not having had children hasn’t helped her when it comes to relating to people. Leadsom was right.”

***

May was quicker off the mark on Monday, issuing a statement condemning the appalling attack at Finsbury Park Mosque swiftly after it occurred, and going there shortly afterwards to meet community leaders. No one could fault her assurance that Muslims must enjoy the same protection under the law as everyone else, or the speed and sincerity with which it was made. She is learning what leadership entails, but too late.

Her administration has become unlucky. This happened to John Major, but, as in his case, the bad luck is partly down to bad decisions; and the bad luck that comes out of the blue simply piles in on top of everything else. Grenfell Tower, lethal and heartbreaking for its victims and their families, was merely more bad luck for the Prime Minister because of her slow-witted response and failure – presumably because shorn of her closest advisers – to do the right thing, and to do it quickly.

But then it turned out that her new chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, had in his previous incarnation as a housing minister received a report on improving fire safety in tower blocks and done nothing about it. That is either more bad luck, or it shows May has dismal judgement in the quality of people she appoints to her close circle. Form suggests the latter.

The idea aired last weekend, that May had “ten days to prove herself”, was a minority view. For most of her colleagues it is too late. It was typical of Boris Johnson’s dwindling band of cheerleaders that they should broadcast a story supporting Davis as an “interim” leader: “interim” until Johnson’s credibility has recovered sufficiently for him to have another pop at the job he covets so much.

They also sought to create the impression that Davis is on manoeuvres, which he resolutely is not. Davis has been around long enough to know that if he wants to succeed May – and his friends believe he does – he cannot be seen to do anything to destabilise her further. It is a lesson lost on Johnson’s camp, whose tactics have damaged their man even more than he was already.

Andrew Mitchell, the former international development secretary and a close ally of Davis, told the Guardian: “. . . it is simply untrue that he is doing anything other
than focusing on his incredibly important brief and giving loyal support to the Prime Minister. Anyone suggesting otherwise is freelancing.” That summed up the contempt Davis’s camp has for Johnson, and it will last long beyond any leadership race.

There is a sense that, in the present febrile climate, whoever is the next leader must be highly experienced. Davis qualifies; so does Hammond, who before his present job was foreign secretary and defence secretary, and who has belatedly displayed a mind of his own since May was hobbled. Hugo Swire, a minister of state under Hammond in the Foreign Office, said of him: “He’s got bottom. He was very good to work for. He is an homme sérieux. I liked him very much and he would calm things down.”

But, as yet, there is no contest. Calls for calm have prevailed, not least thanks to Graham Brady’s steady stewardship of the 1922 Committee, and his success in convincing the more hot-headed of his colleagues to hold their fire. Yet MPs say the 1922 is not what it was 20 years ago: ministers have become used to taking it less seriously.

However, many MPs expect Brady, at a time of their choosing, to go to Downing Street and deliver the poison pill to Theresa May if she is slow to go. Some who know her fear she might take no notice. If she were to play it that way, her end would be unpleasant. As the old saying goes, there is the easy way, and there is the hard way. Remarkably few of her colleagues want to go the hard way but, like everything else in the Tory party at the moment, that could change.

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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