Who will Parker lead this time?

DAVID Parker will lead Scottish Borders Council for a third successive term.

Amid the smoke and mirrors in the aftermath of last week’s local government polls, that appears to be the only confident prediction ahead of an announcement, expected later today or tomorrow, on which coalition of parties and groups will form the new ruling administration at Newtown.

The results threw up the possibility of numerous permutations which could yet see the SNP, who were the major victors on Thursday, consigned again to the opposition benches.

They returned nine councillors from 12 runners, just one short of the 10 won by the Conservatives who, since 2007, have ruled the roost in an uneasy alliance with the Lib Dems and Independents.

That represents a 50 per cent increase in representation for the SNP, prompting its new group leader John Mitchell to aver: “Our capacity to make a difference is greater than ever before.”

The Nats, however, could well rue the loss of Kenneth Gunn, their Selkirkshire representative for the past five years.

Under the single transferrable vote system of proportional representation, Mr Gunn was second after the first preferences in his ward were counted.

In all other 10 wards, the three leaders on first preference votes were ultimately elected, but not Mr Gunn, who fell foul of the subsequent vote transfers, leaving his party one short of parity – and crucial power-broking authority – with the Tories.

As discussions, which have involved all the political groups since Friday’s declaration, continued yesterday, it was looking increasingly likely that a slightly amended version of the status quo will prevail.

Given the protocol, although not set in stone, that the party with the largest number of councillors should conduct the overtures, an amalgam of the 10 Conservatives, the six surviving Lib Dems and the boosted complement of seven Independents (up from four), preferably with the two Borders Party councillors on board, was emerging yesterday as the likeliest option.

The most credible alternative to that is an alliance of the SNP, Lib Dems and Independents, with or without the Borders Party, which would see the Tories frozen out.

“These are now the only two games in town,” said a source who has been privy to the horsetrading.

“Although there are numerous permutations, it would take a Damascene conversion on both sides for the Tories and SNP to combine ahead of the Scottish independence referendum.”

The consistent thread running through all of the potential combinations is that Mr Parker, who romped home as an Independent in Leaderdale and Melrose, will lead the new administration, whatever its complexion.

“Some of the Independents, recognising they now have more numerical clout, fear they also could be frozen out, but that is not going to happen and Parker will lead again,” said our source.

“The thought of Parker and Michael Cook [East Berwickshire] in opposition is enough to put the wind up any administration.”

The current horsetrading presents a dilemma for the Lib Dems who lost four councillors on the night to become a previously unthinkable fourth force in local government politics in its erstwhile heartland.

Their leader, Alec Nicol from Kelso, freely acknowledged: “The biggest single factor was dissatisfaction with the coalition between the Conservatives and Lib Dems at Westminster.”

A party insider told us: “Having taken their second kicking in a year [remember Holyrood], some surviving councillors will have serious doubts about embarking on yet another liaison with the Conservatives at local level and, independence apart, they have much more in common idealogically with the left-of-centre SNP.

“But ultimately it is not just about manifestos and policies, it is about people you can work with and I expect them to link up again with the Tories, provided Parker is at the helm and as long as the new coalition is not portrayed as the status quo, but one with a very different dynamic.”

None of the protagonists was prepared to go on the record about the progress of the talks yesterday, although Mr Mitchell conceded they were “delicately poised” and Mr Parker said they were “strenuous and ongoing”.

“What I can say is that you form a ruling administration in haste and repent at leisure,” said Mr Parker.

“It may take some time, but we owe it to voters to get it right and to get behind a policy programme which is best for the Borders.”

Election special – pages 10 & 11