It’s time for the Birmingham Post to present our annual political awards, as we ask which of our representatives shone brightest in 2011. The judging process was fuelled by mince pies and just a glass or two of the Christmas brandy, so the results may not be scientific, writes Political Editor Jonathan Walker
The Inspector Clouseau award for detective work goes to West Bromwich East MP Tom Watson (Lab), for his efforts uncovering the truth about phone hacking.
Mr Watson became a national figure following his outspoken attacks on Rupert Murdoch and the media baron’s businesses, when it emerged that Murdoch paper The News of the World had hacked the phone of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler.
The MP famously told James Murdoch, son of Rupert and chairman of News of the World publisher News International, that he was the equivalent of a mafia boss.
Tom Watson is a canny media operator in his own right, and knew full well that this comment would make the headlines, keeping the controversy about phone hacking at the top of the news agenda and putting the Murdochs under even more pressure.
But what hasn’t been quite as well publicised is the patient detective work he put in behind the scenes before the Milly Dowler story came to light.
For two years, Mr Watson quietly investigated the phone hacking affair, convincing former and current journalists, among others, to talk to him.
He has personal experience of being hounded by the press, and puts this partly down to News International’s anger at his role in helping to force former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair out of office back in 2006 (Blair promised to resign within a year, and left Downing Street in 2007).
In a speech to the annual conference of the GMB in June, Mr Watson said: “I was told then that Rebekah Brooks, then the editor of the Sun, now the Chief Executive of News International, would never forgive me for what I did to her Tony.
“They said she would pursue me for the rest of my life. She did, they have, I can tell you from personal experience it’s not very nice.
“And when you’re faced with that daily fear, you really only have two choices. Give in and get out, or give as good as you get.”
But the MP’s ambitions extend further than stamping out criminality and unethical behaviour by sections of the media.
Again, this has not received as much coverage as other aspects of the affair, but Mr Watson believes there is a problem with the power that the media currently has to dictate the terms of political debate.
Politicians – even prime ministers – are scared to take positions which will make them unpopular with certain newspaper proprietors or editors, in his view.
To put it another way, the press decides policies and then, to an extent at least, expects politicians to follow. But it should be the other way around – with Parliament debating ideas and the media reporting.
That’s not to say that Mr Watson is attempting to stop newspaper columnists or anyone else from expressing their own ideas. What he does believe is that the balance of power is currently wrong.
The Sarah Palin “will she, won’t she?” award goes to Birmingham MP Liam Byrne (Lab Hodge Hill) for keeping us guessing about his intentions regarding standing for the post of Mayor of Birmingham.
Of course, the post doesn’t exist yet, and won’t unless city residents vote “yes” in a referendum next May.
And to even stand, Mr Byrne would need to win the Labour nomination – pitching him against former MP Sion Simon, current MP Gisela Stuart (Lab Edgbaston) and former city council leader Sir Albert Bore, who also want to be Labour’s candidate.
But that didn’t stop some commentators reporting that Mr Byrne planned to throw his hat into the ring.
The rumours were apparently prompted by an article he wrote for The Birmingham Post in which he argued that Birmingham must have a powerful mayor with a role in policing, transport, culture and much else.
You can have strong views about the way Birmingham is governed without wanting the job yourself.
And my understanding has always been that Mr Byrne, Labour’s Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary and a former member of the Cabinet under both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, planned to remain in Parliament and remain very much involved in politics at a national level.
So when I put the question to him, I expected him to squash the rumours and rule himself out of the race.
This is the statement I was sent: “I’m getting stuck into the debate simply because I’m passionate that Birmingham should take control of its destiny with a strong and powerful mayor. Labour has three great candidates to be mayor of the city and that’s why I will be fighting for a yes vote in May.”
That seems to me to be very close to a denial, without actually being one.
Rather like Sarah Palin, I suspect that Mr Byrne will eventually confirm that he’s not standing. But he’s in no hurry to say so. On the other hand, there is a possibility that the MP could lose his seat – not by losing an election, but because of changes proposed by the Boundary Commission, which are currently out for consultation.
His Hodge Hill constituency is to be merged with Ladywood, held by Labour MP Shabana Mahmood, and she’s not budging.
If the worst does happen to Mr Bryne – and nothing’s certain yet – then he’ll be looking at all his options.
The Usain Bolt award for getting off to a flying start goes to Erdington MP Jack Dromey (Lab).
Mr Dromey is an experienced campaigner, as the former Deputy General Secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union, but he’s a House of Commons newbie after becoming an MP last year.
As the husband of Labour Deputy Leader Harriet Harman he’s a ripe target for Conservative critics, who claim there was something dodgy about Labour’s failure to impose an all-women shortlist in Erdington.
However, I’m giving him this award for his sterling work campaigning against cuts to West Midlands Police, as a new MP.
By finding experienced police officers forced to retire as a result of budget cuts, and convincing them to tell their stories to the media as well as to meet Theresa May, the Home Secretary, he focused attention away from numbers and budgets and on to the real effects of removing experienced police officers from their posts.
The officers were able to explain exactly what they had been doing – before they were forced out – and their fears for the future. The campaign was so successful that police cuts a key issue for David Cameron at Prime Minister’s questions.
The Ashford and Simpson award for being solid as a rock goes to Sutton Coldfield MP Andrew Mitchell (Con) for sticking to his role as International Development Secretary despite frequent rumours that he’s about to be reshuffled elsewhere.
Whenever a Cabinet Minister is in trouble, reports appear that Mr Mitchell is being lined up to replace them. Hence, he’s been touted variously as a potential replacement for Business Secretary Vince Cable, Foreign Secretary William Hague and, most recently, former Defence Secretary Liam Fox.
It just does to show that the frantic guessing games that go on when the Government is in trouble sometimes yield more heat than light.
But it presumably says something good about Mr Mitchell that he’s seen as an obvious candidate for top jobs.
He insists, however, that he’s delighted to remain where he is – in charge of the UK’s £8 billion aid programme.
In an interview earlier this year, he told me: “It is the most interesting job I have ever had in politics.
“Our generations have a chance to make a colossal difference to these huge discrepancies of wealth and opportunities that exist in the world today.
“Ours are the first generations who have had the chance to make these changes.”