Since their election in October 2020, the unprecedented division and volcanic tribalism in the States, partly political but often personal, has been conspicuous but largely contained by the authority of an outwardly bipartisan senior committee, Policy & Resources.
Yesterday, it erupted, as Deputy Heidi Soulsby resigned from the Committee, ushering the end, at least for now, of her time as the most senior woman in the States and shattering the Committee’s principal and perhaps only bridge with the minority third or so of members in the centre and centre left of the Assembly.
Deputy Soulsby’s resignation statement was as pointed as it was brief. "It has been obvious for quite a while that my views and advice have not been valued by some on the Committee…there is little point in me continuing in the hope that things may get better," she said.
Her unease with the Committee’s increasingly frenzied approach to tax reform – and in particular GST – may have hastened her departure, but it was not the cause.
Her President, Deputy Peter Ferbrache, just as briefly, said he was "sorry…but I respect her decision…she has made a valuable contribution".
Their valedictions, issued in a written release which also ruled out interviews, made little attempt to conceal the differences, discontent and – as was once famously said – "tragic conflict of loyalties" with which Deputy Soulsby and one or two other members of the Committee have "wrestled for perhaps too long". Months, certainly, rather than weeks.
Pictured: The Policy & Resources Committee yesterday started the search for a new member to be elected by the States next month to replace departing Vice President Deputy Heidi Soulsby.
Ironically, Deputy Soulsby would almost certainly have been the Committee’s President if Deputy Gavin St. Pier had stepped aside from that election two years ago.
To his credit, Deputy Ferbrache, having fulfilled his ambition to secure the Presidency he was so disappointed not to win four years earlier, tried to build a committee which reflected the political balance of the Assembly: Deputy Mark Helyar, the leader of The Guernsey Party; Deputy David Mahoney, not a member but a fellow traveller certainly; and two members of what was then The Partnership of Independents, Deputies Soulsby and Jonathan Le Tocq.
They started with, and have largely retained, the greatest advantage enjoyed by any senior committee in modern times: reliable loyalty from a majority of the Assembly: The Coalition, as their critics now know them. Deputies Ferbrache and Soulsby, as President and Vice President, were especially formidable. When on the same side of an argument in the Assembly, they were virtually unbeatable.
Pictured: Deputy Peter Ferbrache's Policy & Resources Committee has so far enjoyed an unusual level of loyalty and support from a majority of their colleagues in the States' Assembly.
But it was never clear that their Committee could survive. Deputies Ferbrache and Soulsby have mostly enjoyed working together but differences with other members, both politically and temperamentally, soon created tension, and not much of it creative.
In January, sudden public announcements, on each occasion by one member, about dubious and ultimately unsuccessful plans to develop large family homes around the Castel Hospital site and then buy a passenger vessel tested the unity of the Committee.
In the summer, Deputy Soulsby clashed with other members of the Committee over what bizarrely was probably the most heated debate of the term so far: whether to build housing for key workers on a green field at the Princess Elizabeth Hospital. This was followed by policy disputes over housing and anti-discrimination legislation.
Then Deputy Soulsby was left exasperated when it was revealed that three members of the Committee, a majority, were among a 'gang of 14' deputies working independently of the States' committee structure on proposals for renewable energy.
In the middle of all this, it is understood that Deputy Soulsby told the Committee that she could not bring herself to support its flagship fiscal policy, GST, which most observers already think will be dead on arrival when it hits the States' Chamber in January.
At last week's States' meeting, the relationship between President and Vice President was visibly strained as they disagreed repeatedly and not always cordially about the level of immigration and the size of the island's population.
Pictured: Deputy Heidi Soulsby said she was dismayed to find out that a majority of her colleagues on the Policy & Resources Committee were part of a group of States' members developing their own ideas for renewable energy alongside an electricity strategy being worked up by the Committee for the Environment & Infrastructure.
At the weekend, several deputies were discussing whether Deputy Soulsby would still be on the Committee after the tax debate in January. On Monday, she met the States' Chief Executive, Mark De Garis.
Soon after 12:00 yesterday, she apologised for pulling out of a 13:00 interview with Express about other policy issues, and speculation grew that an announcement was imminent.
At 15:00 on the dot, it became clear that whatever efforts Deputy Ferbrache had made, in recent days or over months, to hold his Committee together had failed. For the first time since the Policy & Resources Committee was created in 2016 as the senior States’ committee, it had lost a member mid-term.
Deputy Soulsby remains the Committee's Vice-President until the States elect a successor, potentially when they meet next week or, if not, then probably on 23 November, after which she will join Deputy St. Pier and Deputy Lyndon Trott – or perhaps re-join them, since they were the three leaders of the former Partnership – in having no seat on any committee.
Pictured (l to r): Deputies Lyndon Trott, Heidi Soulsby and Gavin St. Pier launched The Partnership of Independents ahead of polling 9th, 2nd and 1st respectively at the 2020 general election, but two years later all three find themselves without a seat on a single States' committee.
In the meantime, the Policy & Resources Committee has started sounding out potential candidates.
Several deputies may be available from the group in the Assembly which usually forms a majority with the Committee, but this would leave it unbalanced politically, and arguably at greater risk in the difficult months ahead.
Trying to replace Deputy Soulsby with a deputy from the group in the Assembly which is usually in a minority – in other words, from among her natural allies – may be politically more astute. But those deputies may fear that the circumstances facing them on the Committee would be no different to those which Deputy Soulsby ultimately found unbearable. And so it is not at all clear that any of them will be prepared to volunteer.
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