OPPOSITION Tories are demanding an emergency council meeting over claims Southampton’s new Labour council leader misled the public about the resignation of a Cabinet member to avoid political embarrassment.
Conservatives want a meeting to force a motion of no confidence in councillor Richard Williams and remove him as leader for “bringing the council into disrepute”.
Cllr Williams, who yesterday returned to the Civic Centre after spending a week in Brussels on a work trip, welcomed the opportunity to clear up any “confusion”.
He faces a grilling over his announcement of the resignation of his efficiency tsar Cllr Keith Morrell – just two weeks into the job.
In a statement issued through the council Cllr Williams had said Cllr Morrell had quit on health grounds. But within days Cllr Morrell admitted it was a “fiction” he said he had agreed to with Cllr Williams after the leader himself threatened to quit.
Cllr Morrell said he was in fact fighting fit and could not keep up the pretence when friends and family became concerned about his welfare.
The 63-year-old accountant said he had quit in a policy split over the savings and cuts he believes the cash-strapped council will have to make to plug a £46m budget deficit over the next two years.
Cllr Morrell said he had not been consulted on the statement about his resignation and was “amazed” when Cllr Williams then repeatedly denied he was given any other reasons other than ill health.
Five Con-servative councillors – Peter Baillie, Ivan White, John Hannides, John Inglis and Anthony Kolker – have petitioned the Labour mayor Derek Burke to hold an extraordinary council meeting within seven days to debate the saga.
If the mayor refuses they can re-petition under council rules to force one to be convened.
The requisition said: “In view of the real reason for the resignation of Councillor Morrell as Cabinet member for efficiency and innovation, being that he did not agree with the new Labour administration’s proposals to deal with the council’s budget problems and not that he was ill as publicly stated and repeated by the leader of the council, that the leader has brought the council into disrepute and accordingly the council has no confidence in him and resolves to remove him from the office of leader”.
Opposition Tory leader Royston Smith said: “We want to make sure we have all the information in the public domain to get to the bottom of which of these two councillors, elected to an office of trust, is telling the truth.”
Labour councillors were initially gagged by regional party bosses from speaking to the press about the “Morrell story” but later said they had full confidence in Cllr Williams.
Left wing life-time Labour party man Cllr Morrell said he took the job of Cabinet member for efficiency with the intention of protecting jobs and services but could not defend what he called a “dismantling of local government.”
Cllr Williams said: “We want to be transparent. I will certainly support and welcome it. If they want to have that debate let’s get on and do it in the public eye.”
He said it would be a good way to clear up any “level of confusion”.
Cllr Morrell said he echoed Cllr Williams sentiments about a debate and said he stood by his claims.