THE JOHNSON DEFECTION
Eric Pickles 1988 election campaign had been a resounding success. The campaign had been fought entirely by attacking Labour's promotion of "fringe issues". Not one word of Pickles' radical plans for Bradford had been put before the mass of voters.
As the results began to come through on Thursday night it was clear that Pickles' best hopes had been fulfilled.
Out went Labour deputy leader Gerry Sutcliffe. By the end of the evening the Tories had gained 4 seats; 3 from Labour and 1 from the Liberals. The result now stood at Labour 43, Tories 42 and Liberals 2.
2 Eccleshill ward seats were not counted until the following day - both had previously been held, by Labour. When these results came through Labour had narrowly held onto one and lost the other to the Tories in a close, nail-biting finish.
This left Labour the biggest party with 44 seats, Tories second with 43 seats and the Liberals once again holding the balance of power with 2 seats.
There remained 1 seat unfilled. During the campaign the Tory candidate for one of the Odsal ward seats had died. Ken Carrol, father of Labour's chief press officer Pete Carrol, had died in his sleep on Wednesday, April 27th. A by-election was due to be held in June and the Tories were confident of winning that as well. A victory in the by-election would make them neck and neck with Labour on 44 seats apiece.
Pickles was well pleased with the result, although overall control had still just eluded him. Labour were still in charge with Liberal support and there was no way that Pickles could hope to push through his secret, radical plans. Apart from the upcoming by-election, no further elections were due for another 2 years. Bradford faced the prospect of yet another hung council.
In fact it was not to be. Everyone was about to be stunned by the events of the following week when a junior Labour councillor was to unwittingly pave the way for Eric Pickles' Bradford Revolution.
33 year old Edward Johnson had been elected as Labour councillor for one of the 3 Odsal ward seats in Labour's 1986 landslide victory.
He had risen through the Young Socialists and had impressed local constituency activists with his intelligent and honest speaking abilities. He was considered by many to be a bit of a maverick left-winger, but his main passion lay in the history and social traditions of Bradford itself.
Johnson's undoubted high I.Q. fed an impatient and somewhat idealistic desire to "get things done". He lacked many of the social skills required for the collective party political wheeler dealing that characterises local government control. He was an individualistic and occasionally obsessive character who felt that 90% of local politics fell outside petty party differences. Johnson would have been happier in a past age when Independents represented their wards without recourse to party whips. The advent of disciplined party politics meant there was no room for such independence.
Although he started with no particular desire to rise through party ranks, he was impatient to make an impact in the area that was of particular concern to him ~ the environment.
Johnson had always found it difficult to hold down a job for any length of time and when he joined the council he had to live as best he could on the allowances the council paid, which for a back bencher were very small. None the less, he worked hard and before long had drawn up a series of documents on strategies for improving the environment.
These policy ideas were met with a fair amount of indifference by the Labour leadership who considered Johnson to be an "undisciplined oddball". His ideas were judged to be of low priority.
Johnson was therefore understandably annoyed when, in April 1987, the Tories put forward a policy proposal to a council meeting on "Caring for our Environment". The Labour leadership quickly polished up Johnson's proposals and produced them as their own package in order to steal the glory from the Tories. The proposals were eventually referred to another council meeting of July 21st 1987.
Seizing the opportunity Johnson put a list of 6 items on the agenda for the June meeting of the Labour group's "Think Tank" - their Policy Advisory committee.
This was to become the crucial meeting for Johnson. His items included proposals for:
- An open-air market.
- More accountability for officers and councillors expenses, particularly with regard to "fact finding" trips.
- The erection of a plaque to commemorate the birthplace of the Independent Labour Party, and
- The naming of a new road in memory of the Swedish anti-nazi Raoul Wallenberg.
They were hardly earth-shattering or controversial proposals, but again the Labour leadership, concerned with wider strategic policy ideas, considered them of low priority. Johnson's proposals were given short shrift and a row ensued. Johnson stormed from the meeting feeling insulted and humiliated. He considered resigning but Labour councillor Barry Thorne persuaded him to take a short break and let tempers cool. Johnson thus missed the July council meeting when his environmental proposals were formally adopted.
Eventually a "Green Issues Select committee" was established and Johnson was given the chairmanship. He was pleased with his achievement and when 3 leading Tories, Kath Metcalfe, Margaret Eaton and Phyllis Pettit, came to congratulate him and offer support, Johnson was flattered.
But this support from the 3 Tory women - all central characters in Pickles' "Core" group - was not altogether what it seemed.
The Tory "intelligence" network had picked up news of the Johnson rift in Labour's ranks. Johnson had been marked down by Pickles as a potential weak spot on the Labour benches.
Identifying dissatisfied and disaffected members on the opposite side is a practice employed by all politicians. Pickles had taken this somewhat ad-hoc "intelligence" technique, refined it, and added it to his arsenal of calculated tactics. Pickles was interested in any sympathetic or friendly contact with a member of the opposition. Such contacts required careful nurturing.
Of course, the Labour group was riddled with disaffection. The difference was that other backbench rebels generally accepted party discipline; Johnson would not.
The Green Issues Select committee met on 5 occasions, the last being in March 1988. Under Johnson's chairmanship the discussions were allowed free reign and covered a wide range of topics. Little of the usual party bickering was apparent and Johnson at last felt he was making progress. He felt that the Tories on the committee, which included Phyllis Pettit and Smith Midgley, were particularly supportive.
Whatever the Tories' intentions at the time, when Pickles finally took power the Select committee's recommendations would be entirely jettisoned and the committee itself abolished. With what he thought were new found allies, Johnson felt confident to break Labour group ranks when a special council meeting was called on April 7th 1988 to discuss the controversial issue of Gypsies. The Labour group had introduced a policy of "non harassment" of unofficial Gypsy camps, coupled with an attempt to open new official sites to cope with the number of local Gypsies in the area. It was an honest and brave attempt to deal with a problem that had long been the cause of friction wherever the travellers set up their temporary encampments. But as with so many of Labour's policies, the matter had been badly handled.
The Tories used the opportunity to launch an offensive, knowing that those Labour councillors in whose wards Gypsy camps had been set up were also critical of the policy.
Johnson rose at the meeting to launch a personal attack on Mandy Farrar, who ran a council funded education project for the travellers called Roadside Stop. Pickles had pledged to close down Roadside Stop at the earliest opportunity. Johnson was later disciplined by the Labour group for his intervention.
None the less, at the scheduled council meeting 3 weeks later Johnson once again embarrassed the Labour leadership. With the councils' Annual Meeting just a month away, the Labour leadership were toying with the idea of proposing a Labour councillor as Lord Mayor for the second year running. Such a move was unprecedented and the Tory candidate, Smith Midgley, should by convention have been unanimously accepted.During the comments section of the meeting Johnson rose and said that he looked forward to Midgley taking the post. He attacked the Labour leader for dithering.
A furious Phil Beeley, Labour leader, refused to be drawn, but across the chamber Eric Pickles watched Johnson's antics with mounting pleasure.
Johnson's increasing frustration with the Labour leadership led him to consider seeking a leadership position where he might have more influence. He lodged his nomination papers for various positions on the leadership team, including the chairmanship of the Enterprise and Environment committee. Group elections were due at the Labour group meeting following the May 1988 council elections - now only one week away.
On Friday May 6th, 1988, the day after the council elections that had left a hung council, Johnson bumped into Eric Pickles in the corridors of City Hall. Johnson congratulated Pickles on the Tories' success and the two chatted amiably for a few moments. Pickles suggested that Johnson should give him a ring sometime for a further chat and the duo parted.
Johnson was confused, feeling particularly isolated at that time and increasingly bitter towards the Labour leadership. He was keen on seeking vengeance for the way he felt he had been mistreated by the party machine and so the following morning he phoned Pickles at home. Pickles was pleased to hear from Johnson and arranged to meet him in a pub for a lunchtime drink.
As the two talked Johnson felt more at ease and eventually poured out the overbearing resentment he held for the Labour group. He told Pickles of the treatment he had received at Labour's Policy Advisory committee a year earlier. He spoke bitterly of the Labour leadership's refusal to appreciate the importance of the ideas he was promoting.
Sensing the opportunity, Pickles invited Johnson back to Phyllis Pettit's house for further talks. Pettit made Johnson welcome and the three discussed Johnson's position for many hours.
The friendly atmosphere seduced the lonely and confused Labour councillor. Johnson explained how he had reached the end of his tether and was considering resigning. Pickles was particularly sympathetic. He told Johnson "If you want to resign and stand again as a Conservative, you will receive our full backing."
Pickles painted a picture of a Conservative group ready to give Johnson's talents full reign. It was a misleading picture for Tory party discipline was a much more restraining force than Labours. None the less, Johnson was now chiefly motivated by his desire to reap revenge on the Labour leadership.
Johnson considered Pickles' offer and expressed an interest. Pickles then went a step further and suggested another alternative; "Perhaps it would be simpler if you just cross the floor of the council chamber and join the Conservatives without resigning your seat."
After further discussions Johnson returned to his Saltaire home to think things through.
On Monday Johnson went to Pickles' City Hall office. There he met Pickles, Pettit and Tory deputy Richard Wightman. Johnson explained that he had thought through what Pickles had suggested and was willing to join the Tory benches. Barely concealing his delight Pickles none the less told Johnson to think again.
"If you want to change your mind, now is the time. Once you've made your decision there can be no turning back."
Johnson was adamant. Pickles produced Johnson's Tory party membership card and signed it. The Tory trio warmly congratulated Johnson and immediately began organising events. From this point on Johnson would simply be swept along as Pickles took control.
For Eric Pickles it was a coup beyond his wildest expectations. Only 3 days before, control of the council had seemed years away. Now it was suddenly within his grasp.
Pickles' first move was to contact his close friend Malcolm Hoddy, news editor at the Telegraph & Argus. Clearly this was too important a matter to be handled by an untrustworthy reporter, however senior. Hoddy agreed enthusiastically to handle the publicity personally. No one else at the T & A would know anything.
Pickles also contacted the Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher with the news. At last he was able to fulfil his promise of 2 years earlier - he would deliver the city of Bradford into Conservative hands with a radical programme undreamed of anywhere else in the country. The Prime Minister was delighted. A question would be prepared for Shipley MP Marcus Fox to ask in Parliament, thus giving Thatcher a chance to comment on the events.
Meanwhile Pickles had told Johnson to "lie low" whilst preparations were made. But incredibly on Monday night the independently minded councillor turned up at the Labour group meeting.
It is difficult to imagine what was going through Johnson's mind at the time. The maverick councillor, now a secret member of the Conservative party, sat quietly through the proceedings of the Labour group. As the group's elections to various positions took place, Johnson rose only to withdraw his own nominations.
None of the Labour group had the slightest idea of what was going on.
Johnson met Pickles the following day. Pickles had written Johnson's resignation letter to Labour leader Phil Beeley. It read;
"Dear councillor Beeley,
"After long and careful consideration I must tender my resignation as a member of the Labour party.
"I have become increasingly disenchanted by the way in which Bradford has been run and ruined by the Labour party. Your inability to face and your cowardice against the "hard left" in Bradford ultimately means the people of Bradford will lose out.
"I am astonished after such a defeat that you are still considering taking control of Bradford. In consequence, unlike other councillors who have just walked away, I intend to stay and fight. Consequently I have joined the Conservative party and will be taking that party's whip on Bradford council.
"Yours sincerely, councillor Edward Johnson."
The letter of course gave little indication of Johnson's real reasons for his defection. But for Pickles it was another propaganda coup which gave him the opportunity to push the fictional concept of a "hard left" controlling the Labour group. This "hard left" fantasy obsessed Pickles and it is difficult to understand why. It was probably a tactic he picked up from the London boroughs.
Johnson signed the letter and a copy was handed to T & A news editor Malcolm Hoddy. Hoddy then conducted a carefully stage-managed interview with Johnson for his own personal "exclusive" to be carried in the local paper the next day.
Pickles had further arrangements to make. He had to fix police security for Johnson - he was fully aware of the fury that would follow the announcement of Johnson's defection. He also had to draw up careful plans for guiding Johnson through the rest of the media that would descend on Bradford the following afternoon.
Edward Johnson returned home to solitude that night. As he pondered, he began to realise the enormity of what he was doing. In panic he tried to contact the one Labour councillor he trusted, Barry Thorne. But Thorne was unavailable - his mother was ill.
Johnson phoned Pickles and explained his growing doubts. Pickles immediately rushed round to Johnson's house to reassure him.
On late Wednesday morning the midday copies of the T & A rolled off the presses with the front page shock announcement of Johnson's defection. At the same time the T & A's senior City Hall reporter Robert Schopen was dispatched by Hoddy to break the news to the Labour Chief whip Tony Cairns.
The Labour group were stunned.
Meanwhile Pickles had lined up the local and national media and he led Johnson through a series of interviews. Johnson seemed remarkably at ease and for a while his confidence returned. With the media circus over Pickles rushed Johnson back to Pettit's home for "safe housing". No one else knew his location.
Safely surrounded by warm and friendly supporters Johnson felt comforted. But as local Tories congratulated his brave decision, at his Saltaire home his telephone answering machine was filling with outraged and abusive messages.
On Thursday morning Johnson phoned through to his home and replayed the messages. He was horrified by what he heard.
Amongst the stream of abuse were 2 other messages; one from Barry Thorne who was trying to trace him and another from a close friend who'd just returned from London. Making excuses Johnson slipped from Pettit's house and met his friend in a pub. From there they went to Barry Thorne's home.
Johnson explained what had happened and Thorne was sympathetic. Later Labour Chief whip Tony Cairns joined them and they talked well into the early hours.
As they talked Shipley MP Marcus Fox rose in the Commons shortly after 3 p.m. to put his prearranged question to the Prime Minister:
"Will my right honourable friend take time today to consider the implications of the gains made by the Conservative party last week on the Bradford Metropolitan district council, plus the defection this week of a Labour councillor who has joined us, thus making us the largest group on the council? Is this not a sign that people in the inner cities are looking to us to ensure for them a better future by controlling government locally and nationally?"
The Prime Minister replied:
"Yes, I join my honourable friend in congratulating the people of Bradford on their wisdom. The results give Bradford new hope and a new chance. Prosperity is spreading widely all over the country, including the Bradford area."
Johnson meanwhile ended up sleeping at Thorne's house.
By the next morning Johnson knew he had made a grave mistake by his defection. He also knew that his political career was at an end.
Barry Thorne drove Johnson back to Pettit's house to pick up his things. An anxious Eric Pickles was waiting.
Pickles tried desperately to convince Johnson to see the deal through, but it was too late. As Johnson was driven away, an ashen-faced Eric Pickles was left to worry about how he would explain the turn around to the Prime Minister.
The Labour group persuaded Johnson to delay his resignation for a while and sit back on the Labour benches. Johnson acquiesced.
The following month the Tories won the outstanding by-election in Odsal.
On July 27th 1988, Edward Johnson finally resigned his seat and left politics for good. His momentous defection had lasted all of 2 days!
Pickles put on a brave face. Johnson's U-turn had once again snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. But there was one consolation for Pickles; Johnson's final resignation would give Pickles the by-election he never thought would come. The full Tory party machine was thrown into the by-election campaign, with the region's Young Conservatives playing a vital role.
On September 15th the Odsal voters delivered Johnson's old seat into Tory hands.
The result left the Tories with 45 seats, Labour 43 and the Liberals 2. With the opposition combined they could now only muster the same 45 seats as the Tories.
But for Eric Pickles it was enough. He had carefully planned for this eventuality. On September 18th Eric Pickles took control of Bradford council.
His "Bradford Revolution" was about to begin.