It’s all to play for.
That was the message from UKIP’s big guns as the party announced the recruitment of five West Norfolk councillors to its ranks on Friday.
Four of the five – Paul Foster, Michael Langwade, Michael Pitcher and Stephanie Smeaton – are former members of the ruling Conservative group on the borough council. Mr Langwade and Mr Pitcher have both served as past mayors of the borough.
And their former leader, Nick Daubney, yesterday said: “These are people who I would never have given positions of responsibility to and that led to some bad feeling. The electorate will make their own judgement.”
But Toby Coke, UKIP’s Parliamentary candidate for North West Norfolk said: “Today marks a big new era of change in West Norfolk.”
The party’s Norfolk-based MEP Stuart Agnew added: “What this will do is worry every single, borough, county or district councillor who isn’t with UKIP. I’m quite convinced we will see more of this.”
And Swaffham county councillor Paul Smyth, who will contest the South West Norfolk seat at the general election, said he had already spoken to another councillor about switching to them.
The party now forms a group of seven, the third largest on the borough council.
Its other members are Ashley Collins, who represents the Watlington ward, and Hunstanton representative Richard Bird, who remains as an independent. Mr Foster, who has been named as the new group’s leader, said: “Our biggest challenge is to bring an end to the Conservatives’ dictatorial style of leadership on the borough council.”
He said the party had uncovered a potential £5 million black hole in council finances, which he claimed the Tories had failed to address.
But Mr Daubney said: “The figures are there for everybody to see. We have produced a financial plan to the end of 2017.As more and more cuts come, we have to find more and more efficiencies and savings to produce a balanced budget.”
Senior UKIP figures say they are now well placed to challenge for power in the borough when voters go to the polls next May.
The Conservatives currently hold almost two-thirds of the 62 seats on the borough council and UKIP need another six to overtake Labour as the main opposition party.
But MEP Patrick O’Flynn said the party should be ambitious after achieving its goal of winning the European elections earlier this year. He said: “Change is in the air and UKIP is part of that change.”
However, North West Norfolk MP Henry Bellingham accused the new UKIP recruits of “insulting” their electorates by not following the example of the party’s new MPs, Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless, in seeking the consent of voters in by-elections.
He said: “That would be the honourable thing to do. They don’t have a mandate from their voters.”
He also insisted he welcomed the “competition” for his current seat, in which he will be facing Mr Coke and Labour’s Jo Rust and backed Mr Daubney’s group to withstand the new challenge.
He said: “I’m quite confident Nick and his leading lights are going to put out a very positive message.”
But Mr Pitcher, who represents the Grimston ward and says he will be stepping down at the next elections, said: “We’re there to represent people, not party.”
And the fifth new recruit, West Winch representative June Leamon, who was first elected as an independent, added: “UKIP gives a voice to a lot of people who are frustrated and feel they are not being heard.”