Labour MP Liam Byrne, who hoped to become Birmingham’s first directly-elected mayor, made a late dash to Tory grandee Michael Heseltine to warn that David Cameron’s dream of creating mayors in Britain’s big cities was about to collapse, he has revealed.
Mr Byrne (Lab Hodge Hill) warned Lord Heseltine last month that Birmingham was set to vote “no” to a directly-elected mayor and urged him to intervene.
The MP, Labour’s Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, wanted the government to spell out exactly what powers a mayor would receive.
In the event, voters taking part in the referendum on May 3 were asked to decide whether they wanted directly-elected mayors in Birmingham or Coventry without any clear idea what powers they would have to improve the lives of city residents – an omission which supporters of a mayor believe contributed to the proposal’s resounding defeat.
In Birmingham, 57.8 per cent of voters opposed a mayor with 42.2 per cent in favour, while 63.6 per cent voted against the idea in Coventry with just 36.4 per cent in favour.
However, ministers insist the idea of big city mayors is not dead. Voters in Bristol chose to create a mayor, while councils in Liverpool and Leicester chose to move to a mayoral system without a referendum.
When mayors are seen to be a success in those cities, others could yet choose to follow their example, according to Government sources.
And David Cameron is to press ahead with plans for a “cabinet of mayors” with direct access to him, possibly including mayors from smaller cities and towns such as Salford and Middlesborough.
Mr Byrne and fellow Labour MP Gisela Stuart (Lab Edgbaston) – who had also hoped to stand as mayor – urged the Government to continue devolving powers both to Birmingham and potentially to a “city region” authority or partnership.
This would be likely to include Birmingham, Solihull and the Black Country.
Mr Byrne said a lack of clarity about the powers of a mayor had contributed to the proposal’s defeat.
He said: “It became clear that people just didn’t know what they were being asked to vote for. They were being asked to make a leap of faith at a time when faith in government and politics was at a low. We were asking people to vote for more politicians without explaining what they were going to do.”
He met Lord Heseltine, the former Deputy Prime Minister who was advising the government and had previously convinced Mr Cameron to back the idea of city mayors, about two weeks before the May 3 vote.
“I went to see Lord Heseltine and said it was really important that we set out what the powers are now, because we are going to lose.”
But Lord Heseltine had been unable to help, he said.
Mr Byrne claimed Ministers had hoped to win the referendum thanks to a “loaded question” which asked voters to choose between a council leader, described on the ballot paper as “how the council is run now”, or a mayor, described as “a change”.
He said: “The government relied on what they hoped was a loaded question but that treated voters like fools. People weren’t just going to vote for change without knowing what they were being offered.”
The MP insisted his own future as a member of Labour’s shadow cabinet was not in doubt, despite his attempt to leave national politics and stand as mayor of Birmingham. Although he never left the shadow cabinet, he had planned to step down if the city did vote to create a mayor. He said: “This was a dream job for me. It would have been the greatest job in the world. Most people here understand why I wanted to do it.”
Gisela Stuart said she believed the question had been confusing because the campaigns for and against a mayor had been presented as “yes” and “no” campaigns while the ballot paper did not include yes and no options.
She said: “It was appalling that the government, whose policy it was, was not prepared to campaign for the policy.”
But Ministers couldn’t just give up on proposals to devolve power from Whitehall, she said. Ms Stuart urged Ministers to consider introducing “city region” powers which would allow Birmingham and neighbouring authorities to take control of policy areas such as transport.
Ms Stuart said she intended to continue as MP for Edgbaston and to defend her seat at the next election. Liberal Democrat MP John Hemming (Yardley), one of the leaders of the victorious campaign opposing a city mayor, also called for greater powers for the “Greater Birmingham” region.
He said: “The Manchester authorities have done very well working together as Greater Manchester. We should not be afraid of the idea of Greater Birmingham.”
But he insisted the idea of a city mayor was “dead”. He said: “There has been a debate and there has been a vote.”