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A POWER struggle has put the fate of Oxfordshire County Council in the hands of two councillors.

Independents Les Sibley and Mark Gray have emerged as key players in the battle for County Hall, after the Conservatives failed to win a majority in last week's elections.

With the Tories short by just one seat, group leader Ian Hudspeth has been forced to negotiate with them to keep his party in charge of the authority.

And as the talks went on last night, Mr Sibley, who represents Bicester West, revealed he and Mr Hudspeth were on the verge of a deal. Mr Gray also hinted he could join them.

Both were previously part of an alliance with the Conservatives but said they would reconsider that position on Friday after the election.

Their comments yesterday came after Labour and the Liberal Democrats admitted they had failed to rally enough support for an alternative 'rainbow coalition' over the weekend.

Mr Sibley told the Oxford Mail: "I have not come to a final decision, but I am leaning towards an agreement with the Conservatives.

"I was part of alliance with them before and that has worked well. Even if you could get a rainbow coalition together, it would just be chaos anyway.

"It's hard enough to get two people to agree, let alone a collection of different parties and independent councillors."

Mr Hudspeth yesterday declined to comment on the possible deal, but Mr Sibley confirmed there were several issues he was 'pressing' the council leader on in exchange for his support.

These include assurances the Conservatives will prioritise plans in Bicester for new multi-million pound road crossings at the railway in Howes Lane and London Road.

Mr Sibley added: "I am elected to represent people in Bicester and so I want to make sure I get the best deal for them.

"With both these key schemes, people need to know what is going on."

Meanwhile, Benson and Cholsey councillor Mr Gray said he was in a 'difficult position' after speaking to opposition party leaders.

Over the weekend, Labour and the Liberal Democrats had suggested an alliance with him, Mr Sibley, fellow independents Lynda Atkins of Wallingford, and Neville Harris and Henley Residents' Group councillor Stefan Gawrysiak.

But it is understood Mr Harris has refused to join with them, meaning that – like the Conservatives – they would also be one short of a majority. The Didcot Ladygrove representative was not available for comment yesterday.

Mr Gray added: "Even if they all come together, it's going to be 31 against 31.

"No Tory councillors are going to switch sides so the only way for someone to get a majority is for one of us to go over to them.

"There is no agreement yet, but of course we are talking to each other."

In an appeal to the Liberal Democrats and independents, Labour boss Liz Brighouse had suggested major changes to the county council that would have give all councillors a bigger say on decisions.

At the moment the authority is controlled by a leader, elected by councillors, and cabinet members who can make executive decisions.

But Mrs Brighouse called for committees of councillors to be given control of decision-making again, similar to the system previously in place before November 2001.

She said: "We need a new process for decision-making that involves all councillors. At the moment power is far too centralised around the cabinet."

The idea was enthusiastically backed by Lib Dem group leader Richard Webber, who said: "It would be a much better way of involving everyone."

He warned the Tories would be forced to make concessions to that would favour some areas above others if they allied with indepedent, adding: "It is not a very sensible way to run a county."

Parties need to decide who will form an administration before a vote to elect the leader next Tuesday. The meeting will start at 10.30am in County Hall, Oxford.