Councillor Richard Hilton quits: Merton Conservative Group in turmoil over leadership
Merton’s opposition group was plunged into turmoil this week after a leading figure resigned as part of an audacious bid to challenge for the leadership.
Councillor Richard Hilton quit as environment, transport and regeneration spokesman on Monday, just two days before Merton Council’s budget meeting on March 6.
Sources within the group have revealed it is the second time Coun Hilton has quit in protest at the leadership of Coun Debbie Shears, who he believes will lead the party into defeat at next year’s local elections.
One well-placed source said: “It all goes back to last year’s budget meeting, when the Group voted that we should ask the council to cut council tax.
“We were told by Caroline [Holland, the lead officer for finance] that it couldn’t be done, so Debbie overturned the decision.
"Richard went absolutely mad, saying it was outrageous an unelected council officer should dictate our policy.”
Conservative leader clung on to power by just one vote
There then followed secret campaigning which led to a split in the party, but Coun Hilton could not win enough support and lost an internal leadership election by one vote out of 27 Conservative councillors.
It is understood Coun Shears brought back Coun Hilton after promising to take a more aggressive line on council tax.
This week, the group argued Merton Council should cut council tax by five per cent, whereas the ruling Labour group froze council tax for the third year running.
A Conservative councillor - who has pledged to support Coun Shears - said: "Richard has always wanted to be leader.
"He has good ideas but he had his chance and he shouldn't keep knocking on the door."
Both Coun Shears and Coun Hilton have refused to comment on what has prompted this week's resignation.
Coun Shears said: “He resigned from the shadow team in response to a decision that the group made.
“The group took a vote on a decision that was nothing to do with him. He has been replaced by Coun Henry Nelless until a permanent replacement is set at our annual general meeting in two weeks time.
“This is the second time he has resigned. He resigned a year ago, again around the budget time.
“He challenged me and I’m quite happy to say he lost.
“But I think is somebody resigns for a second time, that’s enough. He will not rejoin the shadow team.”
Official announcement on Monday
Coun Hilton kept tight-lipped on why he resigned.
He said: “It is not true that I resigned because I disagree with a decision of the group.
“The reason for my resignation is a private matter between the leader and I.
“It does not in anyway reflect disagreement with the wider Conservative Group.
“I believe there is no benefit in discussing it publically and I am disappointed she has felt the need to do so.”
Coun Hilton must formally declare his intention to be Merton Conservative group leader by noon on Monday, March 11 - a week before the group's annual general meeting on March 18.