The Green Party has been left with the crucial balance of power on Brighton and Hove City Council after the defection today of Councillor Anne Meadows from Labour to the Conservatives.
Labour remains in administration – or in political charge of the council – for the time being but now that the Conservatives are the largest group, they have the chance to try to seize control.
It will be up to the Greens whether they actively support a Conservative power grab, which is regarded as unlikely.
They could abstain in any vote, which would be in line with local conventions and is seen as more likely. This would effectively put the Tories in charge.
Or the Greens could oppose a change of administration, sustaining Labour in office just weeks before going head to head against Labour in the local elections on Thurdsay 2 May.
Some party members regard this as political suicide in the battle for key seats such as in Hanover and Elm Grove ward, Queen’s Park ward and Preston Park ward where Labour and the Greens are the two main parties in contention.
The first chance for the Tories to try to take charge will come next week when the full council is due to meet to set the annual budget on Thursday 28 February.
But the Tories are expected to wait until the week after when a special or extraordinary meeting can be called, with Tuesday 5 March pencilled into council diaries.
Traditionally, the council has agreed that the largest political group forms the administration even when the largest group does not have a majority – and no party has had a majority in Brighton and Hove since 2003.
At the last local elections in May 2015 Labour won 23 of the 54 seats on Brighton and Hove City Council. The Conservatives won 20 and the Greens won 11.
Since then the Labour group has dropped to 20. Councillor Michael Inkpin-Leissner resigned from the party to sit as an independent over anti-semitism and Brexit but could back Labour next week.
Councillor Caroline Penn resigned as a councillor in December and today (Wednesday 20 February) long-serving Labour councillor Anne Meadows defected to the Conservatives, giving them 21 seats.
Even if Councillor Inkpin-Leissner votes with Labour, it may not be enough as Conservative mayor Dee Simson holds the casting vote in the event of a tie.
Another factor making the mix even more uncertain is that the Greens are not “whipped” – they are not told how to vote by their party. So if each follows his or her conscience, it is possible that Labour could hold on.
The Green group convenor Councillor Phélim Mac Cafferty said: “Just a few months since Anne Meadows stated live on TV that she would ‘not vote Labour in the next election’ it is little surprise that she has defected from Labour to the Conservatives.
“Labour has been consumed by divisions: the former Labour leader Warren Morgan was ousted in a political coup, Caroline Penn quit in protest, we have had three children’s committee chairs in as many years and now Anne Meadows has defected. What a mess!
“In 2015 Labour promised they would get the basics right. But from overflowing bins and rampant graffiti to defecting councillors, far from ‘getting the basics right’, Labour’s many council pledges now lie in tatters.
“While splits consume the other two parties, Greens are united in our commitment to work hard for our communities and remain focused firmly on the important local issues affecting our city.
“It is Greens who have pushed for action on homelessness, fought cruel welfare reform, for answers on the impact of a catastrophic Brexit and forced our council to wake up to the climate change emergency.
“With Tory austerity continuing to hammer our city and a Labour group unable to lead the council, it is the Greens who are united with a plan for the future of Brighton and Hove.
“Residents deserve better than Labour incompetence or a de facto Tory council and we look forward to sharing our manifesto for action, ready for the upcoming council elections on Thursday 2 May.”
Councillor Tony Janio, the opposition leader, said: “The Conservatives will now have eight weeks to show the residents of Brighton, Hove and Portslade just how effective we would be if we were elected to form a full four-year administration.
“We will not let them down as Labour has over the past four years.”
The council’s chief executive Geoff Raw said: “The council will continue to provide services to local residents and we will continue to offer consistency of service during this period until the council resolves its governance.”