So near yet so far for ‘Lord Mayor John Lines’Posted: January 11, 2012
Never say never in politics. Eleven years after suffering the humiliation of being told he was not after all going to be Lord Mayor of Birmingham, John Lines may finally be on course to inherit the glittering office.
The combative Tory city councillor should have been given the job in 2001, but Labour and Liberal Democrat members joined forces and threw out the nomination, claiming that Coun Lines was too divisive and right wing for a multi-cultural city like Bimingham.
Eleven years later, the Liberal Democrats have performed a U-turn and decided that Coun Lines is exactly the sort of chap to become First Citizen. The fact that the Lib Dems are running the council in partnership with the Conservatives and it is the Tory turn to nominate the Lord Mayor may have something to do with this.
And in any case, some Lib Dems have come to have a grudging respect for Coun Lines’s eight-year stint as cabinet member for housing and admire the way he has turned around a failing department. They also love the way he routinely delivers a verbal bashing to hapless opposition councillors who dare to question publicly his performance.
This, at least, is the official coalition line. Bubbling away beneath the surface, however, there remains unease among a few Liberal Democrat councillors and rather more outright hostility in the opposition Labour group.
Most Labour councillors are finding it difficult to forget about the spot of difficulty Coun Lines found himself in four years ago after referring to asylum seekers as “scumbags” and “scallywags”. The remarks were made in the context of an interview to a magazine and meant to underline Coun Lines’s support for British armed forces who, he believed, had to wait at the bottom of the queue for housing while asylum seekers were given preferential treatment.
A complaint was made to the Standards Board for England, but the board cleared Coun Lines of breaking the councillors’ code of conduct and ruled that he had a right to freedom of speech and to be abusive as long as he stayed within the law.
I took soundings in the tea room at this week’s full city council meeting and discovered scarcely disguised anger among Labour members. The 56-strong group is yet to decide formally whether to back the nomination of Coun Lines and is unlikely to do so until just before the February council meeting, when he is due to be pronounced Lord Mayor-elect.
There is a feeling, with the way news of Lines’s prospective elevation leaked out last week, that Labour is being bounced into backing the nomination on the grounds that it is the Conservative turn to take the mayoralty in 2012-13 and they must be allowed to select who they want. This was exactly the argument used in 2001, when it was again the Conservative turn, but that didn’t prevent the council voting to reject Coun Lines on that occasion.
One senior Labour councillor spoke of the “unexpected and unwelcome news” of Coun Lines’s prospective nomination and added that the group appeared completely split over the matter, although there was a groundswell of opposition. The matter will be considered at a special Labour group meeting on Jan 28, just over a week before the council meets to choose a Lord Mayor-elect on February 8, where an attemtp to reach a collective decision will be made.
The Labour group leadership may wish, possibly with a heavy heart, to support or at least not to oppose Coun Lines’s nomination. Pragmatic grounds are being mentioned, with a desire to avoid the festering ill feeling that marked 2001 when the Conservatives refused to nominate an alternative to Coun Lines and the Lord Mayoralty went instead to Liberal Democrat Jim Whorwood.
Phrases such as “we have all moved on” since 2001 and “let’s draw a line under this” are being used in an attempt to rally the troops. There is also a feeling that it would be difficult to justify opposing the nomination for Lord Mayor of someone with 30 years unbroken council service and who, crucially, can boast that he is the first person to oversee the building of new council houses in Birmingham for some 25 years.
He has enjoyed the benefits of Prudential Borrowing, which was not available until the very end of Labour’s council rule in late 2003, and this has enabled hundreds of millions of pounds to be invested in modernising decaying council housing stock. Birmingham’s local authority housing now meets the Decent Homes Standard, which was certainly not the case in 2004.
Add to that Coun Lines’s Homes for Heroes initiative, securing accommodation for members of the armed forces returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, and it is easier to understand why the official Labour stance could be one of, if not outright support, non-opposition to the mayoral nomination.
It remains far from clear, however, whether Labour group leader Sir Albert Bore will succeed in securing a binding decision among his members to vote for Coun Lines as Lord Mayor. A number of backbenchers I spoke to said they wanted a free vote on the issue and would consider rebelling if whipped to support Coun Lines.
Of course, if the coalition wants Coun Lines to have the job, which it does, enough votes exist to force it through since the Tory-Lib Dem partnership still enjoys an overall majority of eight in the chamber. The most likely scenario is that Labour councillors opposed to the nomination, and perhaps a few Liberal Democrats, will absent themselves from the council chamber when the vote to nominate the Lord Mayor is taken, and as this happens at an informal meeting anyway it will be possible for the whips to turn a blind eye.
It is impossible to be certain now, though, about what will happen when the 2012-13 Lord Mayor is formally elected at the annual council meeting at the end of May. This will be the first session of the new council following the elections on May 3, and it is reasonable to suppose that Labour will have a majority of seats and clear control of the city council.
Councillor Lines can be forgiven if he feels unusually nervous during the two week period between the elections and the annual meeting. Nothing is certain in politics, not even for Lord Mayor-elects.