Southend’s Labour council leader has been mysteriously replaced just days after the party emerged as the big winner at the polls.
The council’s Labour group, which boasts 16 councillors, has switched leaders from Ian Gilbert to Milton councillor Stephen George with Kay Mitchell as deputy leader.
Mystery surrounds the reasons why and it is not clear whether Mr Gilbert was pushed or whether he quit.
Earlier this week, Mr Gilbert was bullish about the future as he spoke of discussions with Lib Dems and Independents to continue running Southend.
Tory leader Tony Cox raised concerns that the move meant the “hard left of Labour had taken over”.
He said: “This comes as no surprise. The hard left of Labour have taken over and there will be concerns with policies and plans that go forward.”
However, talks are continuing over plans for a “city partnership” – an alliance of Labour, Lib Dems and Independents – to run Southend Council.
Independent leader, Martin Terry, whose group boasts eight seats on the council, said: “It was a surprise to hear about Ian Gilbert who has done a good job. We had a meeting with the new leader and there is no change.”
Speaking over fears of the “hard left” influence on Labour, Mr Terry added: “We specifically asked about influence from Momentum and were given guarantees, so if that happened we would be out of the door.”
Carole Mulroney, leader of the Liberal Democrats, who have six seats, also indicated there would be no change in her party’s support for the joint administration.
Cllr George, whose father Colin served as general secretary of the Southend Citizens Advice, chairman of Southend Hospital Foundation and challenged MP Sir Teddy Taylor in Southend East in 1980 said: “It’s an honour to be the new leader of such a dedicated and passionate group of public servants.
“The Labour Party’s numbers on Southend Council have grown to 16 after the latest election, which shows the faith that the public have in our vision.”
Mr Gilbert did not address the circumstances surrounding his departure, but added: “It has been an honour to lead the Labour Group over the last 12 years, and to have become the first ever Labour leader of Southend Council.”