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The elections that loosened the Conservative Party's grip on Kent

By Paul Francis

It was billed as “Bins versus Brexit” an election that was supposed to be about voters deciding who they wanted to provide key local services for the next four years.

But the tussle for control of Kent’s councils was in the shadow of the unresolved issue of Brexit and the fears of the main parties - notably the Conservatives - that they were in for a trouncing at the hands of disaffected party activists fed up and frustrated at the impasse in negotiations.

These fears were acknowledged by the newly-appointed deputy party chairman and Mid Kent and Faversham Helen Whately.

Labour gained control of Gravesham and the Conservatives lost control of Thanet, Swale and Folkestone and Hythe (9612404)
Labour gained control of Gravesham and the Conservatives lost control of Thanet, Swale and Folkestone and Hythe (9612404)

Interviewed on Sky at the weekend, she admitted that the party was in for a bruising night, lowering expectations in a classic textbook piece of political spin.

She was right to be concerned. Party activists were going public with their alarming stories of hostility on the doorstep to the extent that they were retreating to constituency offices to stuff envelopes to evade angry voters.

The early signs were ominous. In Folkestone and Hythe, something unexpected seemed to be happening. The Conservatives were losing ground - not to Labour alone but to the Green Party, who were snatching seats in a way that had not been anticipated, least of all by bemused party rank and file members.

Meanwhile, in Medway there was not quite the same pessimistic mood although the party was losing some seats to Labour, there was not the seismic shift that suggested the party was in meltdown.

The Conservatives lose control of Folkestone and Hythe District Council

Labour put a gloss on events, pointing out that the party ended up with the highest number of councillors since 1997.

Over in Dartford, the party fended off the threat they had expected from Labour and in a result that showed the unpredictable nature of what was happening, the opposition leader was out of his seat just as his party was making gains elsewhere.

The Conservatives might have taken some solace that these three results were disappointing but not quite the catastrophic meltdown some feared.

But as early results filtered down, the worries returned. Rumours circulated the leader of the Conservative run Canterbury council, Simon Cook, was in trouble.

City council leader Simon Cook (9611583)
City council leader Simon Cook (9611583)

Over in Swale, there were similar rumours about its leader Andrew Bowles, who was briefly suspended after a tweet in which he defended the right of the far-right activist Tommy Robinson to free speech.

Both had reason to fear the worst and their fears were confirmed: Simon Cook was ousted by the Liberal Democrat candidate Mike Sole, a genuine coup. Cook refused to apportion blame in any direction and was gracious enough to acknowledge that his defeat was simply what happened in elections. “It is politics that's what democracy is,” he said.

One explanation for his defeat was the non-aggression pact that had been agreed between the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party - a deal that meant either one of the two parties would not stand in key target seats.

It was a strategy that had been agreed in Folkestone and was producing dividends for both parties.

Perhaps the more shocking result was the defeat of Conservative council leader in Swale. Andrew Bowles had been on the council since 1987.

Andrew Bowles
Andrew Bowles

Even the most perceptive of observers of council politics would not have expected defeat to come at the hands of the a party that before today had a single councillor in the whole of Kent.

It was a bolt from the blue and perhaps understandably he was deeply upset.

In his Boughton and Courtney ward, the Liberal Democrats had not fielded candidates, a factor which arguably gave the Green Party a boost.

By the time all the results for Swale had been declared, the Conservatives had lost outright control.

Even in the true blue heartland of Tunbridge Wells, the party had to endure the loss of its leader David Jukes to the Independent Tunbridge Wells Alliance.

David Jukes
David Jukes

A trio of Conservative council leaders, knocked down like skittles, came to symbolise what turned out to be an election where the two main parties paid the price for something that they were not responsible for: negotiating a deal that would set the terms of Departure for the UK leaving the European Union.

Voter indifference and antipathy was reflected across the county: politicians from the main parties were feeling the boot of disgruntled activists and disillusioned punters.

The political tectonic plates in Kent have shifted and shifted in a way that was least expected. It is true the Conservatives continue to be the dominant party in several councils but the sea of blue that we have become accustomed to has in parts changed to grey - thanks in part to the Greens.

For the story of the elections as they happened, click here.

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