The surprise moves could result in a new style of Conservative leadership, potentially bringing different views and decisions on city council matters including power-sharing agreements and collaboration with rival political parties.
The city council currently has a multi-party cabinet led by a Green leader. Conservatives are not in the cabinet itself but they do chair a number of important committees.
Coun Richard Austen-Baker has resigned as leader of the Conservative group, Coun Adrian De La Mare has resigned as deputy leader and Coun Joan Jackson has resigned from the group secretary role.
But they remain Conservative councillors and intend to remain on a number of city council committees, it is understood.
Their resignations came on Monday night at a Conservative group meeting in the Station Hotel, Carnforth. Group meetings are held regularly to discuss matters and tactics ahead of city council meetings. A full council meeting is due on Wednesday.
Coun Austen-Baker, who represents Ellel, also resigned from some Lancaster City Council committees. However, he intends to remain on the influential Overview & Scrutiny Committee, which holds the council to account and where he is the chairman. And he is staying on another temporary committee to recruit a new city council chief executive.
After making his announcement at the group meeting on Monday night, Coun Austen-Baker handed over chairmanship of that meeting to Coun Joan Jackson. She then read a written statement from Coun De La Mare, who was unable to attend, announcing his resignation as deputy leader of the Conservative group.
Coun De La Mare, who represents Warton, also resigned from the Council Business Committee, it is understood. But he wants to remain on the Budget & Performance Panel, where he is chairman, and the chief executive committee.
Finally, Coun Joan Jackson, who represents Lower Lune Valley, resigned as Conservative group secretary but will keep some committee work at the city council.
Coun Austen-Baker, who works as a law lecturer at Lancaster University, became the Conservative group leader last year. It is understood he took on the leader’s role at the request of other Conservatives rather than it being a personal political ambition. His preference is to focus on his ward and local city council matters rather than being a higher-profile political leader.
The Lancaster City Council district includes two separate Conservative associations of Morecambe & Lunesdale and Lancaster & Fleetwood. These cover two Westminster parliamentary constituencies with different MPs, Conservative David Morris and Labour’s Cat Smith.
It is understood that Coun Austen-Baker and Coun De La Mare had potentially faced a vote of no confidence on Monday night from the Morecambe & Lunesdale association, linked with an expected move to appoint Coun Andrew Gardiner the new Conservative group leader.
Coun Gardiner represents Overton on the city council and is also a county councillor for Heysham. He has had various employed roles with the Conservative Party over the years.
According to city council declaration of interest information, he is the Conservative campaign manager for Morecambe & Lunesdale, where David Morris is the MP.
It is also understood that Coun Stuart Morris, who represents Kellet, may be put forward as a new deputy leader of the Conservative group. More news could come in the next few days.
The impact of the Conservative group leadership changes could influence the group’s decisions at the city council meetings this year, including which parties it is prepared to cooperate with.
Lancaster City Council is currently under no overall control, meaning no single party achieves a majority of seats. Since the 2021 local elections, it has been led by a Green leader and an Eco-Socialist Independent deputy leader. Its cabinet includes Greens, Eco-Socialists, Morecambe Bay Independents and Labour councillors but no Conservatives. However, Conservatives do chair some important committees.
Last autumn, Coun Gardiner criticised Green councillor Caroline Jackson, the leader of the council, regarding Morecambe MP David Morris and the Eden North visitor attraction.
At a full council meeting, Coun Gardiner accused Coun Jackson of taking ‘cheap shots’ about the Mr Morris’ involvement in Eden development talks. She rejected the accusation but apologised for how she had phrased a written report.
The Eden North project is set for the city council’s planning committee on January 31.
But there are other important meetings coming up too including the annual budget meeting for the new financial year.
The council’s current multi-party cabinet, including Labour and Morecambe Bay Independents, recently agreed recommendations for the 2022-23 budget, which will go to the full council for debate approval in February.
The budget preparation process has involved a spirit of collaboration between parties, which was highlighted by a number of councillors at the cabinet last week.
Then later in the spring, the annual council meeting will take place.
Both these annual meetings could potentially provide opportunities for the new Conservative group leaders to challenge decisions and current power-sharing arrangements between other parties.
However, council voting outcomes could be hard to predict because individual Conservative councillors do not follow a whipping system at the council. They enjoy significant independence and can go against the group leader’s wishes in votes, if they give advance notice.