The leader of Southampton City Council today faces fresh calls to resign after new evidence has emerged that he knowingly misled the public over the resignation of a Cabinet member to avoid political embarrassment.
Previously unpublished email correspondence obtained by the Daily Echo shatters claims by council leader Richard Williams that his efficiency tsar Keith Morrell told him he had to quit due to ill health – when in fact he was fighting fit and had resigned on policy grounds.
And the Daily Echo can reveal the city’s Labour councillors all knew their leader had given misleading statements about the reasons for Mr Morrell’s departure when they supported their leader in an unprecedented vote of no confidence brought by opposition Tories for “bringing the council into disrepute”.
A copy of Cllr Morrell’s resignation letter to Cllr Williams, published for the first time today, makes clear the leader knew health concerns played no part in Cllr Morrell’s decision to quit.
‘Fiction’ And yet Cllr Williams requested council spin doctors issue a statement to thousands of council staff and media saying Cabinet member Cllr Morrell had “stepped down due to ill health”.
Despite Cllr Morrell himself later admitting he was in fine health and it was a “fiction” agreed at Cllr Williams’s suggestion to avoid a political storm over a policy split, Cllr Williams has repeatedly insisted councillor Cllr Morrell cited health reasons for his resignation.
Opposition Tory leader Royston Smith said today: “The email is crystal clear. Keith Morrell did not leave for health reasons.
“Councillor Williams instructed the city council’s communications department to create and release a statement to the media which he knew to be untrue.
“Councillor Williams lied and he encouraged others to lie on his behalf. After being given the opportunity to either clear his name or apologise for his behaviour, he chose to do neither.
“He has demonstrated that he is not only dishonest but untrustworthy. He no longer has any credibility and consequently the time has come for him to go.”
Liberal Democrat group leader Adrian Vinson said Cllr Williams’s judgement had been called into question on “all counts” and added: “The leader of the council’s credibility is in tatters. The emperor has been shown to have no clothes and his party to be thin on principle.”
Cllr Morrell came clean within days of the council statement being issued after friends and family grew concerned for his welfare.
But Cllr Williams continued to deny Cllr Morrell gave any other reason than health for his resignation and failed to address the contradictions in their respective accounts when opposition Conservatives brought a motion of no confidence vote to remove Cllr Williams as leader.
Given the opportunity to explain himself in the council chamber, Cllr Williams said he regretted the emergency meeting had even been called, saying it was a waste of council time and money.
Cllr Williams “acknowledged that mistakes were made in the way the issue was handled, especially with respect to its communication” and said the council statement released in his name was based on information “from a number of third parties and produced in good faith”.
The Daily Echo can also reveal that council officials refused to release a copy of Cllr Morrell’s resignation letter, saying discussions of political appointments between councillors were not covered by the Freedom of Information Act.
However, internal emails disclosed to the Echo reveal the communications department was concerned about accusations they had “been duped into issuing false statements”.
Media manager Sharon Watson said the press office had been put in a “very uncomfortable” position.
Further emails reveal that Labour’s housing and leisure boss Councillor Warwick Payne, a former journalist, sent confidential emails to Labour colleagues advising them how the Freedom of Information Act works, and how correspondence should be worded to avoid being potentially disclosed under the Act.
The copy of Cllr Morrell’s resignation letter was eventually circulated to Labour councillors by their chief whip who feared its imminent release ahead of the crucial motion of no confidence.
‘Sore losers’ In the council meeting Cllr Williams’s deputy, Councillor Jacqui Rayment, who signed off Cllr Williams’s media statement for release, apologised for “not paying enough attention to the wording” but insisted it was “correct” at the time.
Other Labour councillors one by one stood up to praise Cllr Williams as a leader while not addressing the Morrell issue, calling it an unnecessary distraction. Cllr Payne accused Tories of being “sore losers” after getting thumped in local elections in May.
In his resignation letter Cllr Morrell (above), a 63-year-old accountant and lifetime Labour party member, said he had to quit as he could not publicly endorse or defend the cuts he believed the cash-strapped council would have to make to plug its huge budget deficit which he said amounted to “effective dismantling of local government in favour of hiving off services”.
He wrote: “Richard, I could try to bite on the bullet and stay on in the Cabinet but I fear that at some point in the not too distant future I would be unable, in such a high-profile role, to continue publicly endorsing or even defending the path the administration will be taking, and so it is better that I stand down now, without any fuss or media attention and hopefully without causing you any embarrassment.”
Pleaded Cllr Morrell’s decision to resign from the Cabinet came just weeks into Cllr Williams’s new administration. He said Cllr Williams had pleaded with him to agree to say he was going for health reasons as the truth would be politically fatal for his leadership.
Coxford ward colleague Cllr Don Thomas said Cllr Williams visited his home to ask him to persuade Cllr Morrell to agree to say he had resigned on health grounds, but Cllr Thomas declined.
Cllr Morrell said he had reluctantly agreed to go along with the story but said he was not consulted on the statement issued by the council.
Cllr Morrell, who last week finally quit the Labour administration to form a rival group against cuts, said he had now been “vindicated”.
He said he had been persuaded by party bosses not to add fuel to the story at the time of the emergency council meeting as it would damage the Labour party.
“I respected that which is why I sat through the council meeting listening to further rubbish from Richard Williams,” he said.
Asked to comment on the revelations, Cllr Williams said: “I haven’t got anything to add at all, to be honest. No further comments whatsoever.”
When put to him that the resignation Cllr Morrell had sent to him made no mention of ill health and yet he went on make a series of misleading statements, Cllr Williams said: “There were lots of things happening at the time and that happened after that as well. I really haven’t got anything else to add, to be honest with you. I don’t think there is anything else I really can add.”
Pressed that these were serious issues he had not addressed and asked whether he would be resigning, he said: “I don’t think there is anything really I can say at this stage, to be fair.”