I've returned from the Barnet council cabinet meeting. I only arrived just in time for the meeting and when I got there most of the people had already absorbed the atmosphere and were sitting in funereal silence with their heads bowed over the enormous pile of paperwork. It was like gate-crashing a wake.
I felt like making a quip about it when I was called to ask my public question, but I hadn't the heart. You see, socialists are nicer than Tories.
My question about libraries was answered on paper by Lynne Hillan and she read it out as well. I wish I had a copy but, because I was late, I didn't get one. I'll ask Governance and Democracy to send me one.
The upshot of Hillan's answer was: the council is not involved in an estates review which will include looking at merging (closing) libraries. The Strategic Library Review is only about enhancing the service and making it more responsive to changing need. I would be reassured if I hadn't read Councillor Robert Rams' comments to the Times series that the library service is likely to be squeezed by 25-30 per cent.
Councillor Rams was allowed to have a go at me! I wouldn't mind but I hadn't been rude to him (chubby chops!). I said I thought the aim of the consultation over the library service was probably actually about identifying which libraries they could close.
"Typical trade unionist! Head in the sand!" Rams opened with some gusto. He went on to say that he imagines that there will be more venues offering books in Barnet once the review is over, not fewer. He held out what is to him a tantalising prospect: Starbucks lending library. I've news for him: it's been tried already, it was called Borders, and it failed.
And why was the atmosphere so dreadful this evening? Well, of course, tomorrow night, Lynne Hillan faces a challenge to her leadership of the Tory group on the council from Mark Shooter. The Tories in Barnet are, whatever they pretend, in a hideous mess. Lib Dem group leader Jack Cohen has played a bit of a blinder, and put down a no confidence motion in Hillan for the council meeting on 14 September. If she survives the vote tomorrow, Hillan next faces a vote in which Labour and Lib Dems will vote against her, and only eight Tory councillors need to break ranks for her to lose.
Would they do it? We debated this in the corridors outside the meeting, in the pub and on the way home. I think they just might. There would be terrible opprobrium from some Tories for voting with Labour and Lib Dems. But, after all, the Lib Dems are the government's coalition partners, so they cannot be painted as completely untouchable. And the stakes are extremely high.
It is not just about Allowancegate, or some paltry squabble in a local Tory party, it is about big politics. Can Barnet council sort out its difficulties and the incumbent party, the Tories, push through enormous cuts and possibly privatisation on the borough? Can they do it without hitting the headlines every day and humiliating the national party?
If enough Tories in Barnet wake up and smell the (Starbucks) coffee, they will realise that they have to get rid of Lynne Hillan. I'm not telling them to do it. To be honest, I'd rather have her at the helm than Shooter, I think, because I know that Hillan is politically inept. Shooter, it's too soon to say.
P.S. Anyone want to join a save our libraries campaign?