Supporters of an elected mayor need to shape up because Birmingham shows little sign of producing a dynamic figure capable of displaying the leadership and strategic vision required, Tory elder statesman Sir Bernard Zissman tells Public Affairs Correspondent Paul Dale
He is the most senior Birmingham Tory so far to argue in favour of a directly elected city mayor. Yet Sir Bernard Zissman has been out of front-line politics for 16 years which says something about the lack of importance the local Conservative Party generally appears to attach to this issue.
Sir Bernard, who led the city council Tory group from 1991 to 1995, puts his case for a mayor passionately. It is, he thinks, the only way that Birmingham will get the dynamic leader the city needs to cut deals locally, nationally and internationally.
He says: “We need a strong leader whose voice people can recognise, a person in whom you can have confidence, who has a strong network of contacts who can sit across the table with the Prime Minister.
“I am not sure we have that in Birmingham at the moment.
“When a Tory prime minister comes to Birmingham is his first port of call the Council House to see the most important person in the city? I don’t know whether that happens, I ask the question does it happen?”
He recognises that his outspoken comments may be seen as a pretty blatant attack on Mike Whitby, the current Conservative leader of Birmingham City Council.
Sir Bernard rather cleverly skates around this by stressing that Coun Whitby has repeated on many occasions that he does not believe in mayors and does not think Birmingham should have a mayor.
In this case, Sir Bernard argues, it is unlikely that Coun Whitby will put himself forward for selection as Tory mayoral candidate should next May’s referendum vote in favour of Birmingham having a mayor. He adds: “The mayor has to have character, calibre and ambition to sit down with those in power in Whitehall who are going to dish out the money when it comes to major spending decisions.
“I want someone with Conservative leanings to be mayor, the question is where does the Conservative Party look for its mayor?
“You could argue that the first choice would be Mike Whitby, but there is no evidence that he has changed his mind and now believes in mayors. I hope someone will emerge out of the Conservative council group, but if that doesn’t happen we need someone with a commercial and business background.”
Sir Bernard, who chaired the council committee that set the wheels in motion to build the International Convention Centre, is worried about what he sees as a lack of leadership in Birmingham and an almost complete absence of ambition on the council benches. As things stand only Labour’s Sion Simon and Sir Albert Bore have declared as mayoral candidates among the main political parties.
On the Conservative side, Sutton Coldfield councillor Phil Parkin is the sole lonely voice arguing for a mayor.
Sir Bernard bemoans the absence of first class political operators, harking back to the days of Neville Bosworth, Frank Price and Dick Knowles, Birmingham local government figures of the 1970s and 80s with a real national profile. He describes how when he led the council Tory group Government figures would regularly be in touch for advice about national issues.
He warns: “We need to breed some leaders. When I first got on the council it was full of potential leaders on all sides of the political divide. Do we have that calibre of leadership now?
“This should be a job everyone on the council wants. They should be getting some speech and presentational training, making contacts, putting themselves about. But I don’t see that happening yet.
“Both Conservative and Labour party organisations in London should be actively considering who their mayoral candidate is going to be in this great city.”
The Conservative Party, he says, has no idea at the moment how it will go about selecting a mayoral candidate and is in any event lacking “professional leadership” in Birmingham. There is no city-wide Tory organisation capable of running a vibrant mayoral campaign, he claims.
“Unless the Conservatives invest in Birmingham the party is going to be in very serious difficulties,” Sir Bernard adds.
He also takes a sideswipe at the Chamber of Commerce, which he feels is sitting on the fence.
“The chamber should be formally behind a mayor, but that is not happening,” he said.
“All the business people I have spoken to absolutely want a mayor, but the organisation that represents them doesn’t seem to want to take a collective view.”
He fears that an anti-mayor campaign led by Birmingham Liberal Democrat MP John Hemming will win the day unless supporters of mayors change their game.
“My cry is for people in business, perhaps they are outside of politics, to stand up and be counted. The election of a mayor can only be good for Birmingham.”