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The other Conservative leadership contest

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A commentary on the race to become next chair of the LGA 

The national media today has been dominated by the launch of Boris Johnson’s campaign to become next leader of the Conservative party. But away from that hullaballoo the contest to become the next chair of the Local Government Association also got underway in earnest with the surprise entry of a third candidate.

Current LGA deputy chair David Simmonds and LGA Conservative group lead James Jamieson had long been expected to throw their hats into the ring for the battle to replace Lord Porter in what would have been a rerun of last year’s contest for the top Tory role. However, they will now be joined by Peter Fleming, chair of the LGA’s improvement and innovation board, who decided to stand just two weeks ago.

As the Conservatives are the largest group on the LGA, albeit by a tiny margin following last month’s local elections losses, they will elect the next leader. In the three candidates we have a London councillor in David Simmonds who has served as deputy leader on Hillingdon LBC for 17 years, James Jamieson, leader of the unitary Central Bedfordshire Council since 2011, and a district leader in Peter Fleming who has been at the political helm of Sevenoaks DC in Kent for the past 10 years. 

Lord Porter, who is standing down having served the maximum four years as chair, is also a district leader, a fact which attracted some controversy when he was first elected. How could a district leader possibly understand the challenges faced by upper-tier councils grappling with the challenges of social care and therefore make the sector’s case effectively to government?

Lord Porter’s performance as LGA chair has all but put this argument to bed. His straight talking approach has been generally welcomed and indeed on his watch the sector was awarded significant extra funding for social care, including the £650m at last year’s Budget.

Cllr Fleming certainly has the slickest campaign operation so far, with a dedicated website (peter4chair.com) and a campaign video which he launched on twitter earlier this afternoon. As of 3.15pm today the other candidates were yet to announce their candidacy on twitter, although by all accounts both have been working hard to gain member support for the past six months or more.

Cllr Simmonds may face more of an uphill struggle as a London councillor. His base in the capital is small, just over 7% of the 7,058 Conservative councillors, and councillors elsewhere may not be enthused by the idea of a representative from what they perceive as the London bubble. However, he does have the highest national media profile of the three candidates having survived grillings on Newsnight and the Today programme as he made the case for local government while Cllr Jamieson has kept a low media profile during his year as Tory group chair.

It is probably fair to say the qualified engineer Cllr Jamieson is the least well known outside of Conservative circles, having snatched the Tory group leadership from Cllr Simmonds just a year ago with 55% of the weighted total vote. Much will depend on how Conservative councillors feel he has performed in the role over the past 12 months, as well as who Cllr Fleming picks up votes from.

Voting opens on Friday and closes on 27 June. Both Cllr Fleming and Cllr Simmonds told LGC this afternoon they want to seize the opportunity presented by the current crisis in Westminster to reshape the relationship between central and local government (more on this on LGCplus.com tomorrow).

With the future sustainability of the sector very much at stake, the next chair of the LGA will have a crucial role to play in shaping what local government of the future looks like, one that could prove every bit as significant as the next prime minster.

Sarah Calkin, deputy editor

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