Mike Whitby turns full circle to run for Tory elected mayor of BirminghamPosted: February 14, 2012
Birmingham Council leader Mike Whitby will announce his intention to seek the Tory nomination to become the city’s first elected mayor if a referendum on May 3 delivers backing for radical change.
The move amounts to a dramatic U-turn for Coun Whitby, who once campaigned fiercely against mayors by describing them as prone to corruption and‘elected dictators’.
He has told friends that executive powers being dangled in Birmingham’s face by the Government – with a city mayor likely to take control of Whitehall budgets, transportation, economic development, schools and workforce training – will make it easier to justify the change of tack.
It is understood that Coun Whitby has held informal talks at Government level and with Conservative Central Office, and an insider said there were no other credible Tory mayoral candidates emerging in Birmingham at the moment.
Coun Whitby is expected to drop broad hints about his mayoral ambitions when addressing MPs at a House of Commons reception.
The gathering has been organised by Birmingham Chamber and the council to give the council leader a chance to talk about Birmingham’s “revival” under the Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition that he leads and to showcase international links. It is not part of the mayoral debate, but will give Coun Whitby an opportunity to talk about city leadership.
Although Coun Whitby is unlikely to declare his hand openly, he will make the case to the Government for giving greater powers to city leaders and leave his audience in no doubt that he now favours the mayoral model and that he would like the job.
The Westminster reception is the latest stage in a carefully crafted policy of “incremental policy pronouncements”, designed by the council leader’s advisers to gradually reposition Coun Whitby into a pro-mayor stance. The tactics were agreed upon after the 2010 General Election when it became clear that David Cameron, the new prime minister, was intent upon persuading Birmingham and other major English cities to opt for mayoral systems.
In June last year, Coun Whitby wrote to Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles seeking urgent clarification about the Government’s stance on mayors. The council leader wrote about the “considerable implications for myself” if Birmingham moved to a mayoral system.
The letter stated: “Clearly this whole issue could materially affect the way we approach politics in Birmingham, and the decisions I take over the coming months.”
Coun Whitby told the Chamberlain Files: “People may speculate that I am going for Tory mayoral candidate. I couldn’t comment either way.
“But what I am convinced about is that cities like Birmingham need strong leaders with the powers to get things done. The powers to handle devolved Government budgets.
“I have never disagreed with David Cameron that city leaders need to be visible and accountable. I have always argued ever since I became leader that more powers need to be given to cities, and I am passionate about Birmingham.
“The coalition Government has been very clear and David Cameron has been very clear that he wants the country’s biggest cities to have mayors. If the people of Birmingham vote in principle for a mayor on May 3, then we will elect a mayor in November and all of the main political parties will have a candidate.”
Eleven years ago, Coun Whitby helped lead a campaign which put paid to any prospect of Birmingham following London by electing a city mayor. He claimed at the time that the mayoral model could lead to corruption because it placed too much power in the hands of one person, even though the powers on offer from the then Labour Government were strictly limited.
He may be helped in his ambition to be the Tory mayoral candidate by the complete absence of any alternative candidates.
Former Northfield Conservative MP Roger King, who has chaired influential party committees in the West Midlands, is often talked about as a possible runner but has never given any indication of throwing his hat in the ring.
Another name sometimes mentioned is former British Chambers of Commerce Director General David Frost, who lives in Sutton Coldfield. A Tory supporter, the outspoken Mr Frost retired from the BCC at the end of last year. Again, he has given no indication of wishing to enter the political fray.
A well-placed Birmingham Conservative with close links to Central Office and Westminster, said it had been generally accepted for several months that Coun Whitby was likely to be the party’s mayoral candidate – if only on the grounds that there was no suitable alternative.
The source said: “Central Office occasionally gets people coming along and saying something like ‘we’ve got to come up with an alternative candidate to Mike Whitby’, but their stock reply is ‘who would you suggest?’. That’s when the conversation tends to die.”
Coun Whitby’s campaign in the mayoral election will be based on what he regards as the legacy for Birmingham resulting from his almost eight years in power. He will highlight the big capital projects – New Street Station refurbishment, the new civic library, the Midland Metro extension – while also stressing his administration’s council house improvement programme.
It is highly likely that he will have to fight a mayoral campaign from the position of leader of the opposition on Birmingham City Council, since the Tory-Lib Dem coalition is odds on to lose control to Labour following the May local elections.
It remains to be seen how Coun Whitby handles the tricky fact that his achievements were only made possible because of Liberal Democrat support, and by the steady stream of capital funding from the Prudential Borrowing scheme, which was established by a Labour Government. Any suggestion that Coun Whitby might run for mayor as a Tory-Lib Dem Coalition candidate is immediately shot down by insiders, who say the idea is unlikely to get approval from the two parties nationally.
The chances of Coun Whitby actually becoming Mayor of Birmingham appear remote in the current political climate. Most of Birmingham’s 720,000 electors usually vote Labour, and certainly did so at the 2010 local and General Election. He might have a slim chance of sneaking through on second preference votes, but national backing for the Conservative cause would have to increase substantially.
Undaunted, Coun Whitby insists he detects a surge of support for the Conservative Party in Birmingham. “Our fortunes are rather better than most people think. We are getting improved canvassing returns and there is an upsurge of interest in becoming a councillor,” he said.
He believes his brand of One Nation “urban Conservatism” will prove popular in Birmingham and is keen to distance himself from his party’s right wing, particularly the shire counties set opposed to the HS2 high speed rail project.
- Birmingham Chamber gets behind mayor, but council still in la-la land (thechamberlainfiles.wordpress.com)
- Bob, Digby and Mike: time, gentlemen, please (thechamberlainfiles.wordpress.com)