Leading councillors on Aberdeen City Council have chosen not to appoint a new co-leader – after anger at the Conservative nominee for the job.
A rapid meeting of the urgent business committee unanimously agreed Councillor Jenny Laing would become sole leader of the Tory, Labour and Independent Alliance administration.
However, he has been appointed convener of the powerful city growth and resources committee, which controls the Town House purse strings.
And he remains the leader of the Aberdeen Conservative group.
Unearthed in 2019 during the general election campaign, the Conservative was suspended by the party for the comments regarding the Holocaust, Muslims and homosexuality.
The vacancy, which has not been filled, arose as Councillor Douglas Lumsden MSP gives up the job of co-leader and steps down as convener of the city growth and resources committee.
He plans to continue on as a councillor, splitting his time between the Town House and Holyrood, arguing a by-election would cost too much to hold to find a replacement for less than a year.
Fellow councillors-turned-MSPs, the SNP’s Jackie Dunbar and Audrey Nicoll, are understood to be doing the same.
Shift in power sharing arrangement
Aberdeen Labour leader Mrs Laing has already served as council leader during the previous council session – when her group was the largest within the ruling coalition.
She replaced now Lord Provost Barney Crockett as leader in 2014, remaining in place until after the 2017 election while the legal practicalities of installing co-leaders were ironed out.
Mrs Laing said she was “delighted” with the unanimous agreement to the new allocation of the top positions and said she would focus on Aberdeen’s “social and economic recovery” from Covid-19.
“Councillor Houghton has made clear what his position was earlier in the week,” she said.
“He felt that the speculation around his position was a distraction from focusing on that recovery, and therefore we have put forward the positions we have.
“I look forward to working with colleagues inside the council and partners from outside the council to make sure we are delivering on that recovery agenda for the people of Aberdeen.
“It’s vitally important we get that right over the next year.”
With Mr Houghton heading up the resources committee, Mrs Laing has been appointed vice-convener.
The Aberdeen Labour chief has given up her job as commissioning convener to be replaced by John Wheeler.
Mr Wheeler had been operations and education convener, but has now been replaced by his deputies Philip Bell and Tauqeer Malik respectively.
While the local authority now has a solely Labour leader, the Conservatives now oversee two of the three main financial levers of the council.
The third, the capital committee, remains under the control of Marie Boulton, the leader of the Independent Alliance group within the political administration.
Mrs Laing will remain convener of the urgent business committee and Mr Houghton will be vice-convener
The Tory leader, who is retaining his £30,000 council business manager salary, told us: “I am looking forward to working with my coalition colleagues on the regeneration of the city.”
Reaction: ‘Tories in turmoil’
News Mr Houghton’s 10-strong group had given up the council leadership to Mrs Laing, one of nine Aberdeen Labour members was seized upon by opponents.
SNP group leader Alex Nicoll, who voted for the new council structure at the meeting, said afterwards: “The Tories in Aberdeen are clearly in turmoil given they have relinquished they spot of co-leader of the Council even though they remain the largest party within the Administration’s ruling coalition.”
“We have previously heard that Councillor Laing was the de facto leader of Aberdeen City Council and that has now been rubberstamped today – even though Aberdeen Labour were rejected by voters at the last council election with that being reaffirmed only last week with the electorate rejecting Labour once again at the Scottish Parliament elections.”
Liberal Democrat councillor Martin Greig, who also voted for the new leadership structure, said: “It has clearly been difficult for the ruling coalition to find a satisfactory replacement that reflects the changed power relations from the Conservative, Labour and Independent side.
“A solution has been found that gives the Conservatives more influence in council business in return for not acting as co-leader. The appointment of committee chairs is a matter for the coalition to agree. They have chosen to increase the prominence and role of the Conservative group in the work of the Council.
“By working together the Conservatives, Labour and Independents are free to let Aberdeen Labour take this step backwards.
“It is useful to see how their internal power struggles are working out.”
He added: “The Conservatives are clearly in disarray.
“The Labour leader has been able to take advantage by elbowing out a Conservative from the top job of co-leader.”