Keith Barton, the Longbridge Tory councillor who last year failed in an attempt to become deputy Conservative group leader, appears to have extracted a measure of revenge over those in the party hierarchy who persuaded him to contest a position he was never in a million years likely to win.
As chairman of the Equalities and Human Resources Scrutiny Committee, Barton can usually be relied upon to behave as an unflinching Whitby loyalist and rarely misses an opportunity to bang the drum for the council leader and his administration.
But a funny thing happened this week. Barton presided over a meeting of his committee which voted to block a far-reaching plan to save £10 million by introducing the Birmingham Contract, a project designed to change the working conditions of 26,000 council employees by removing their entitlement to unsocial hours payments, shift allowances and other perks including free parking spaces.
Even though the scrutiny committee has a clear Tory-Lib Dem majority, members decided to gently tweak the nose of cabinet human resources member Alan Rudge, who is responsible for pushing through the Birmingham Contract.
Rudge insists publicly that he is relaxed about the decision, although he fought hard at the committee to prevent the plan from being referred back to the cabinet for further discussion.
Although the committee’s blocking procedure can and will be overturned, this may mean holding a special session of the cabinet before the March 1 council budget meeting which is due to rubber stamp savings arising from the Birmingham Contract.
It’s all a bit tiresome for Rudge, who went along to the scrutiny committee complete with a “good news” message about some 11th hour compromises he was offering in an attempt to get the unions to drop their opposition to the new working conditions.
But that turned out to be Rudge’s downfall. The compromise – an 18-month protection plan for the lowest paid workers and a guarantee that no one will lose more than 10 per cent of their salary – was deemed to be a substantial change from the Birmingham Contract report approved by the cabinet a week previously.
There must also be financial implications for the council budget, since the re-worked Birmingham Contract is clearly not now going to save £10 million.
In such circumstances a scrutiny committee can order the cabinet to reconsider the matter, which is exactly what Barton and his colleagues decided to do.
Barton faces a tricky contest for his Longbridge seat at this May’s council elections after Labour took the ward in 2010 with a majority of 117. In the present political climate, it would be a brave pundit who predicted anything other than a clear Labour win this year.
Barton may, therefore, have decided to throw caution to the winds and go out with a bang. As one Tory frontbencher told me, Keith does have the capacity to be something of a troublemaker should he wish to do so.