A HENLEY town councillor has defected to the Conservatives less than a year after being elected.
Sara Abey left Henley Residents’ Group due to “fundamental disagreements” with party members.
She becomes the third HRG councillor to switch to their rivals in the last 18 months, following former Mayor Martin Akehurst and Dieter Hinke.
Cllr Abey, a gemologist, was elected in May to the town’s south ward.
She refused to speak to the Henley Standard but her letter of resignation to HRG said that she felt she could serve the town better as a Conservative councillor. The letter read: “After a great deal of thought, I have decided to join the Henley Conservatives.
“My views and policies have not changed one iota, it’s just the party with whom I feel I can best serve Henley.
“I have taken advice on proceeding with this change, including from both past and present town clerks, as I want it to take place with minimal disturbance and negativity.”
Gill Dodds, leader of Henley Residents’ Group, said she has to resign and stand again for re-election, this time as a Conservative candidate.
Mrs Dodds, a former mayor, said: “I’ve never been in favour of people jumping ship. If you want to change parties you should stand down and let people vote for you again. She should resign and see if people want Sara Abey the Conservative because she got in under a HRG tag. It’s not fair on the people who voted for her.”
Mrs Dodds claimed there were rumours that Cllr Abey may defect in the months leading up to her decision but she believed she would stay with HRG. She said: “I told her ‘you can have a line on something which isn’t necessarily the same as other HRG councillors but that’s fine as long as you can explain and justify it’.”
Mrs Dodds added that she doesn’t believe there are any problems within HRG, despite six councillors now having left the party in the last 18 months.
In a joint statement, HRG councillors Stefan Gawrysiak, Ian Reissmann and Jane Smewing said: “It is not clear why Sara has changed her mind about being part of the independent Henley Residents’ Group in favour of being part of a national party.
“We respect the right of Sara to do what she thinks is best. However, if she feels the Conservatives is the place to serve Henley she might want to consider whether those who voted for her as a HRG candidate in May feel the same.”
On the “Henley-on-Thames Past and Present” Facebook page, HRG town councillor Sarah Miller said Cllr Abey’s decision was a “gigantic betrayal” to voters in the town. She said: “What about all the Henley Residents’ Group supporters who voted her as ‘their’ councillor? I think this is a gigantic betrayal and a real shame. But at the end of the day we are all in it for the good of the town and not the hat we wear.”
David Nimmo Smith, a Conservative town, district and county councillor, said the party had welcomed Cllr Abey “with open arms”. He said: “Sara has had fundamental disagreements with HRG members. We’ve been having on and off chats with her for some time and it became clear she wasn’t getting on well with HRG.”
Mr Hinke, who is now chairman of the Henley Conservatives, said: “I’m very glad that she’s joined us. She’s a very bright person, animated in debate and she will be a good addition.”
He rejected the notion of a by-election, saying that Cllr Abey was not obliged to stand again, adding: “The only reason for a by-election is if she resigns and she can’t be made to resign.”
Cllr Akehurst and Mr Hinke were among five HRG councillors who quit the party in November 2014, blaming “serious conflict”. The other three were former mayors Jeni Wood, Pam Phillips and Elizabeth Hodgkin, who chose to sit as independents.
Of the five, only Cllr Akehurst held on to his seat at May’s elections, as the Conservatives won a majority with nine seats to HRG’s seven.