The first – and possibly the decisive battle – at Thursday’s meeting of Argyll and Bute Council will be on an apparently minor procedural point: who will take the chair for the session.
The Provost is the SNP’s Councillor Isobel Strong, who will not be present.
The Depute Provost is Councillor Dougie Philand of Argyll First – who will not be present either.
Both are, of course, members of the current coalition administration, and, through their enforced absence, will be unavailable to vote.
The first job on Friday of the council as a whole will be to vote in a councillor to take the Provost’s chair for the occasion.
The way this works is that both administration and opposition put forward agreed nominees – and all councillors vote for one or the other.
The vote for the Provost’s chair
Factor in to this vote the hot issue of the moment – and the SNP’s planned route out of power: the proposed closure of Struan Lodge care home in Dunoon.
If the administration nominee is voted into the chair, will that person allow more discussion and another vote on the Struan Lodge proposal? That is a big question. If that Provost-for-the-day did not do so, it might avoid imminent collapse, but the resulting row over any apparent gagging would leave the issue like the living dead, bound to be raised again.
A successful opposition nominee would certainly sanction the inclusion of this matter on the agenda.
All of those who want, for whatever reason, to be certain that the Struan Lodge issue will be discussed and voted on would theoretically have to vote for the opposition’s nominee to take the chair. This might well be a tied vote, with the 16 administration members present countered by the 16 opposition members and with the two administration resignees, Councillors Breslin and Hall holding the ring. They might well split, with Breslin voting for the opposition nominee and Hall for the administration one.
If Hall went for the opposition nominee as well, the deed would be done – and, in any case, Councillor Blair will clearly be waiting to see whether he should desert the administration on this matter to ensure a new debate on Struan Lodge.
Assuming that the opposition nominee takes the chair – how would a vote on the Struan Lodge issue go?
A vote on Struan Lodge
We’ve done our own situation analysis, with the following results.
The two Councillors who have resigned from the SNP group and are no longer members of the party are Michael Breslin from Dunoon and Fred Hall from Oban.
Breslin now has no reason to do other than vote to keep Struan Lodge open, Hall voted to close it last time and has no obvious reason to change that vote, regardless of where he sits in the Chamber. We’re assuming both vote in these respective ways.
Councillor Gordon Blair is likely this time not to abstain but to vote to keep the care home open, against his party’s proposal to close it. He is said to have been assured of an amnesty from the political consequences of such blatant opposition to a decision taken by his party’s administration and under the doctrine of collective responsibility.
We assume that the two Independents in the administration, Councillor Elaine Robertson and Councillor Iain Angus MacDonald, will each vote with the administration, for closure.
Elaine Robertson will do so out of the loyalty and the respect for collective responsibility that is her professional hallmark. In the end, Iain Angus Macdonald will do so for similar reasons and because, although he is an Independent, he is unlikely to wish to see the SNP implode.
We assume that the members of the two coalition partner groups, Argyll First and the Argyll and Bute Independent Councillors Group, will vote more or less as they did before. This would see Councillors Freeman and Robert G MacIntyre of the Independents group vote for closure in support of the administration; Councillor John McAlpine of Argyll First vote for closure; and his colleague, Councillor Donald Kelly abstain, as earlier, although, with the shoogly figures backing up the closure proposal, his position may have hardened.
With the exception of three other councillors, we are assuming that all the others vote on party lines. Councillor Gary Mulvaney would be philosophically for closure on financial grounds but, a political pragmatist, will vote to keep it open with most of the rest of the opposition.
The three councillors whose actions we cannot predict and who, with Councillor Donald Kelly, will therefore be subject to most internal reflection and probably external pressure are: Councillors Vivien Dance; Louise Glen-Lee and Mary-Jean Devon.
The votes of these four will be crucial, both on the Struan Lodge issue and for the continuation of the current administration on a confidence vote.
Councillor Dance sits with the opposition but declares herself to be a non-aligned councillor. She is famously dry-eyed on cost cutting measures that impact on the lives of the more vulnerable in society and so, philosophically, would be drawn to support the closure of the home. However, like Councillor Mulvaney, she is a pragmatic, if not an opportunist, politician. We feel that she will vote with the opposition to keep Struan Lodge open.
The decisions of the last two councillors will be politically telling.
Councillors Glen Lee and Devon are known to be in the camp of local SNP MSP, Michael Russell, who yesterday met with Council Leader James Robb and told him to stop the closure of Struan Lodge or he would see him brought down.
This would indicate that each might well vote to keep the home open – but they would not necessarily need to do so to see the desired result achieved.
Let’s look at the maths and keep in mind the games politicians play.
This is a 36 member council. After the resignations of Councillors Breslin and Hall from the SNP group, the picture stacks up as:
- 16: Opposition coalition
- 18: Administration coalition [But the administration will be without 2 members on Thursday - the Provost and Depute Provost - bringing their maximum possible vote also to 16.
- 2: Resigned former administration members
Of the resignees, one may vote each way on Struan Lodge, which, assuming both Councilors Glen-Lee and Devon vote with their party's administration's proposal, potentially leaves a 17-17 draw. If this were to happen, the Provost for the day would have a casting vote - another reason why this first battle on Thursday will potentially decide the course of events.
But Councillor Blair will vote unquivocally to keep Struan Lodge open, which will deliver an 18-16 win for the opposition, regardless of whether or not Councillor Kelly abstains again.
In a roll call vote, which this matter would have to be - Councilor Blair, voting early, would have to take a committed position from the outset.
Councillor Glen-Lee, known to be in the Russell camp, might be used as a backstop against anything unexpected, voting as an 'L', with some of the voting pattern known before she has to commit to a position.
Assuming that all it will take to win this vote is Breslin and Blair voting to keep the home open - they are the two councilors with the most to lose in their home constituency of Dunoon on the Struan Lodge issue - the next thing would be a vote of confidence in the administration.
The coalition administration would just have lost a key vote on what has built into a virility test of a policy issue.
The vote of confidence
In a vote of confidence, Fred Hall would have no reason to vote in favour of the administration from which he has just resigned. Michael Breslin has always been firmly in the Russell camp and now also has no reason to do other than vote his former colleagues down.
On a confidence issue, Councillor Kelly, were he to have abstained again on Struan Lodge, would most probably vote with the administration to which he belongs and has stayed loyal.
But the numbers call the shots. If the administration were to muster its full 16 present on the the day, the opposition have the same number - plus Breslin and Hall. The deed would be done, registering an overall no confidence vote.
Then there would be the usual unedifying horse trading to cobble together a new administration, a spot of musical chairs, the SNP group fishing in their back pockets for the pea shooters that are their weapon of choice [always best to be prepared] and hey presto, Argyll is back in familiar shape.
Those who like to lead would be back in the driving seat and whose who could not lead would be home and free, chillaxing and cheeky, the weight of the responsibility they could not rise to meet taken off their shoulders. Plus ca change.