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Canterbury City Council leader Cllr Rob Thomas facing bid to replace him

Rebel Tories are making a move to oust city council leader Robert Thomas in a challenge he brands "sheer insanity" amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Enough district Conservatives have pushed for a vote of no-confidence in the Chartham and Stone Street representative, who has held the top position for only a year.

Canterbury city council leader Robert Thomas
Canterbury city council leader Robert Thomas

It comes just a week after he is understood to have created unrest by telling the Gazette the cash-strapped Canterbury authority will likely have to make redundancies as it deals with the financial fallout of the Covid-19 outbreak.

But party sources say a division has existed since long before the virus struck, with fellow councillors said to have little confidence in the "boringly competent" style offered by their current leader.

Cllr Thomas, however, says he will not take the challenge lying down and has vowed to fight to retain his position.

"It's hugely disappointing," he said. "I've only ever thrown myself into local politics and tried to do what's best for the community.

"I think those individuals should search their own souls as to whether they've been as honest and genuine as they should have been with me.

Cllr Ben Fitter-Harding is tipped to be the new council leader
Cllr Ben Fitter-Harding is tipped to be the new council leader

"I'm not a quitter. I firmly believe in democracy - if they want to have a vote then fantastic, but I'm certainly not walking away from the role that I love."

The Gazette understands a secret ballot will soon take place after it was supported by up to 13 of the 22 Tories on Canterbury City Council.

If the motion passes, Cllr Thomas will be forced out of the role, with another vote then taken on who will replace him.

It is understood Cllr Ben Fitter-Harding will likely stand unopposed.

Cllr Louise Jones-Roberts said: "There are rumblings and we are a democratic group and if that's what the majority wants then so be it. But if it does happen, we really need to refocus very quickly on the more important issues we are currently having to deal with."

Cllr Louise Jones-Roberts
Cllr Louise Jones-Roberts

Until losing his seat at last year's elections, Cllr Fitter-Harding had been hotly tipped as the successor to former council leader Simon Cook, who also suffered a shock defeat at the same polls.

But Cllr Fitter-Harding rejoined the council in September after a by-election victory in Chestfield, following the death of long-serving councillor Jenny Samper.

Contacted by the Gazette this week, he would only say it was "confidential group business" and he could not comment until the process had concluded.

But he added that he did expect to be chairing the city council's new Covid-19 Emergency Committee on Thursday, May 28 - a position that would normally be taken by the leader.

It is not known when the secret ballot will take place, but group secretary Terry Westgate is understood to be taking advice from national Conservative authorities.

Cllr Neil Baker
Cllr Neil Baker

But Cllr Neil Baker is questioning the timing of the challenge.

"I know moves are afoot for a change of leadership but my personal view is that now, in the current emergency, is not the time for such a process. It would not look very good to the public."

Cllr Thomas - who succeeded Simon Cook last May - is also questioned the timing given the challenges currently faced by the council.

"It's a highly unusual step and even more spectacular in an international pandemic when political parties usually come together," he said.

"It's a team game and the team has to be united. But this is a staggering step to take to think this will unite our group and think everything will be hunky-dory.

Either you're the flavour of the month or you're not and I guess I'm not flavour of the month.

"It's been a very challenging 12 months but I've chucked my heart and soul into it and it's exceedingly disappointing that my colleagues don't recognise those challenges we've overcome and those that we continue to face.

"The feedback I get isn't on my policies but on the group dynamic and that is down to personalities. Either you're the flavour of the month or you're not and I guess I'm not flavour of the month.

"That's unfortunate as I've put in a lot of measures to work with colleagues. There couldn't be more opportunities for councillors to speak with me, so it is particularly disappointing those calling for change have had little dialogue with me .

"I hope I demonstrate good values, and I will be sticking around until the next election. I have no regrets over what I have done, and we shall see what the outcome of this is."

Cllr Ashley Clark
Cllr Ashley Clark

Another Conservative councillor who believes the timing of the challenge is poor is Cllr Ashley Clark.

"I'm aware that certain members are unhappy and talking along those lines, but I think we should really be focusing on our priority of dealing with the current emergency."

Canterbury Conservative Association chairman Simon Cook quickly distanced himself from the leadership bid.

"People say all sorts of things, but I wasn't aware it was actually happening. I'm just a member of the public now," he said.

"To be honest, it's group business and I've have done my absolute damnedest to keep out it as much as possible."

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