With the Government still committed to a directly elected mayor – albeit when the finances permit – Paul Dale looks at who might be in the running to lead Birmingham.
It is perhaps a measure of the extreme wariness most politicians attach to the issue that only one person has been brave enough to admit that he wants to run to be directly-elected mayor of Birmingham.
Former Labour MP Sion Simon said a decision not to contest his Erdington constituency at this year’s General Election would leave him free to campaign for the biggest local government job outside of London.
It was odd timing since, at that stage, there was no certainty that Birmingham would be staging an elected mayor referendum.
And in any case, campaigning to be a mayor while still an MP did Boris Johnson no harm in London.
Mr Simon’s hasty exit, which allowed union boss Jack Dromey to be parachuted into Erdington as the Labour MP, appeared far removed from a well thought-out mayoral campaign. Indeed, since he announced he would be standing down as a Member of Parliament, Mr Simon appears to have slipped completely off the political radar and has even stopped contributing to the social networking site Twitter.
Many Labour Party members think that Mr Dromey would have more chance of becoming mayor of Birmingham than Mr Simon.
Others have even spoken of Mr Dromey’s wife, the deputy Labour leader Harriet Harman, who is of course no longer in Government and come September will no longer be her party’s deputy leader either.
Fantasy politics? Maybe it is, but there can be no doubting that the main political parties must now take the mayoral issue seriously.
The new coalition government is backing prime minister David Cameron’s support for city mayors, and a referendum asking voters in Birmingham for a straight yes or no vote.
Most of the high-profile Birmingham politicians who spent the past decade rubbishing city mayors will have a difficult decision to make.
Do they continue to fight against change, by campaigning for a no vote in the referendum, or do they subtly reposition themselves for a crack at becoming mayor of Birmingham?
Mr Cameron admitted to the Birmingham Post last year his belief that the largest English cities should be governed by a directly elected mayor - but it could backfire in Birmingham for the Tories, where a first past the post system usually favours Labour.
He said he was determined to press ahead regardless because he would not let short-term political expediency stand in the way of shifting to the mayoral system which he genuinely believes will deliver better local government.
The Conservatives, after a poor set of council election results this year, are in a difficult position.
Ideally, a mayoral candidate is a vibrant political character. A charismatic right-winger, like Boris Johnson, or a media-savvy nationally known figure like left-winger Ken Livingstone, who became Mayor of London as an Independent before switching back to Labour.
Mike Whitby, the Conservative leader of Birmingham City Council, will expect to be selected as his party’s mayoral candidate, even though he has fought long and hard against the mayoral system. Officials at Conservative Central Office, however, may feel that someone younger with a more modern outlook is called for.
It seems unlikely that Sutton Coldfield MP Andrew Mitchell could be lured away from his cabinet post to be mayor of Birmingham.
Neighbouring Tory, the MP for Lichfield Michael Fabricant, certainly has the charisma, but lacks the gravitas.
If the Tories wanted to run a purely local campaign, they could go for the likes of populist right-wing councillor John Lines.
Councillor Deirdre Alden might also have her supporters, but since she could not trigger a three per cent swing to win Edgbaston at the General Election it appears unlikely that the Conservative Party would consider selecting her as mayoral candidate.
One fascinating rumour already doing the rounds suggests that the Conservative-Liberal Democrat partnership that has been running the city council since 2004 will come under pressure to follow David Cameron and Nick Clegg by agreeing a formal coalition. If that did happen, it is claimed, the Birmingham coalition could then run a single mayoral candidate under the Con-Lib Dem banner.
Under these circumstances, could it be a case of step forward John Hemming?
The Lib Dem MP for Yardley and a former deputy city council leader has charisma and confidence in spades, as well as a lot of money, which could come in handy for a mayoral campaign. Mr Hemming has positioned himself rather cleverly, opposing, along with Mike Whitby, the elected mayor system on principle – but adding that he would be interested in the position should it ever arise.
Hemming’s get-out clause was greeted with hoots of derision five years ago and he was accused of hypocrisy. But the tide of events seems to be running in his favour now.
No doubt Birmingham Liberal Democrats would fight hard to resist a formal coalition and wish to retain the right to run their own candidate. Paul Tilsley is the group leader and deputy council leader, although as he has just qualified for his free bus pass he may be regarded as too old. Councillor Sue Anderson, the cabinet member for adults and communities, or Martin Mullaney, the cabinet member for leisure, sport and culture, might also see themselves as contenders.
Labour’s selection process for a mayoral candidate offers plenty of chances for back-biting and recrimination.
Sir Albert Bore, leader of the council’s opposition Labour group since 2004 and leader of the council from 1999 to 2004, made himself unpopular in his own party by campaigning for Birmingham to have an elected mayor. A brilliant tactician and stubborn survivor, Sir Albert is bound to be a leading contender for Labour’s mayoral nomination, but he may have to fight off Sion Simon and Perry Barr MP Khalid Mahmood, who has said he might be interested in joining the race.
An early favourite, if he wanted the job, could be Hodge Hill MP Liam Byrne, the former Chief Secretary to the Treasury. Mr Byrne, who was the West Midlands Minister, has the brains and an endless supply of confidence. He may feel, though, that his future remains as a prominent shadow cabinet member at Westminster.
Labour, in common with the Conservatives, will have to decide whether to go for a purely local candidate, or to import a “big hitter” in the hope of attracting support from floating voters. Former West Midlands MEP and EastEnders actor Michael Cashman might do the trick, and what about the Prince of Darkness, Lord Mandelson? At something of a loose end since May 6, could Mandy be persuaded to run the highest of high-profile campaigns to follow in the footsteps of Joseph Chamberlain by becoming mayor of Birmingham?
The biggest unknown about the entire race is the identity of independent or fringe candidates stepping from the shadows.
Lord Jones of Birmingham – aka Digby Jones – the former director general of the CBI and short-lived Minister in Gordon Brown’s government (although he never took the Labour whip) has been talked about as a possible mayor since the mayoral debate began. Lord Jones has never quite spelt out that he wouldn’t be prepared to stand, but neither has he ever said he would.
Clare Short, the former Labour MP for Ladywood, who quit the party over the war in Iraq, is another possible contender always mentioned on wish-lists of candidates although, like Lord Jones, there appears to be scant evidence that she is at all interested in the role.
On the list of possible independents, that leaves former Birmingham City FC managing director Karren Brady. Although now at West Ham in London, Ms Brady still lives in Solihull and has had a meeting with David Cameron at which, it is claimed, the possibility of her running as a Tory mayoral candidate was discussed. Ms Brady’s response to Mr Cameron is not known.
The possibility of a “celebrity” mayor being elected, a person with little or no experience of local government, raises serious questions about how effective their term in office might be. Under existing legislation, whoever becomes mayor of Birmingham will still have to work to reach compromises with the 120 city councillors.
How an elected mayor would rule:
* A local-authority elected mayor has what are deemed exclusive” powers or “co-decision” powers which are defined in the Loca* Government (Functions and Responsibilities) (England) Regulations 2000.
* Co-decision powers are those the mayor shares with the council, notably the power to make the loca* authority’s annua* budget and its policy framework documents. These are: Annua* Library Plan; Best Value Performance Plan; Children’s Services Plan; Community Care Plan; Community Strategy; Crime and Disorder Reduction Strategy; Early Years Development Plan; Education Development Plan; Loca* Development Framework; and the Youth Justice Plan.
* To amend or reject a mayor’s proposals for any of these documents, the counci* must resolve to do so by a two-thirds majority. An elected mayor also has the power to appoint up to nine councillors as members of a cabinet and to delegate certain powers, either to them as individuals, or to the Mayor and Cabinet committee, or to subcommittees of the Mayor and Cabinet committee.
* In practice, the mayor remains personally accountable – so most mayors have chosen to delegate to a very limited extent – if at all.
The possible candidates for Birmingham:
Sir Albert Bore
Lord Jones of Birmingham
Salma Yaqoob (or could run as Respect candidate)