Birmingham City Council leader Mike Whitby told a packed House of Commons reception that he personally secured jobs at Longbridge after building links between the city and China – but failed to offer any hints about whether he intended to stand for city mayor.
Coun Whitby highlighted his success in promoting Birmingham across the world at a reception in the Commons attended by business leaders and MPs from across the West Midlands, as well as cabinet ministers.
It was organised by the city council, with backing from Birmingham Chamber Group, to promote Birmingham’s role as “a global city”.
Colleagues dismissed reports that Coun Whitby ever intended to use the event to confirm he would stand as the Conservative candidate if Birmingham residents vote “yes” to creating a city mayor in a referendum on May 3.
One council official who has worked closely with Coun Whitby said he expected the council leader to stand, but pointed out that the speech could be seen as evidence that there was no need to scrap the existing system of a council leader and cabinet.
Coun Whitby told the reception that his efforts promoting Birmingham in China had paid off following the collapse of MG Rover in 2005.
The carmaker was bought by Chinese firm Nanjing Automotive – which in turn was taken over by Shanghai-based SAIC – which could have shifted all production to China.
Coun Whitby said he had made regular visits to China since becoming council leader in 2004.
He added: “And then sadly we had the demise of Rover. And Nanjing automotive company purchased the MG mark. There were fears that Nanjing would “lift and shift” the Rover operation, moving machinery to China to build cars there, he said.
“But because we then said this city is going to reach out and welcome in, they saw a rationale for being here.
“Eventually they were taken over by SAIC. And I went to Shanghai and I made an appeal to their directors and said: ‘you see in Birmingham a city that has a vision, which is underpinned by what we call a Big City Plan’. Clearly they saw that we had the vision to drive forward this city.”
He added: “And now in fact SAIC actually does make cars in Longbridge and employs 300 people that are engineers and designers and their European headquarters are there.”
Meanwhile, potential mayoral candidate Gisela Stuart has hit out at suggestions that a mayor should represent the wider West Midlands region rather than just one city.
Digby Jones, the former CBI director general, ruled himself out as a candidate for becoming Birmingham’s first directly-elected mayor, warning: “If we don’t lift our ambitions up to the horizons of the West Midlands, as opposed to just Birmingham, we will really miss a trick.”
Ms Stuart, the MP for Edgbaston who hopes to become Labour’s candidate in a mayoral contest, said in a letter to The Birmingham Post: “Digby rightly identifies the importance of coordinating regional policies, especially in vital areas like transport and economic development.
“But I think he’s wrong to suggest this will only happen if we have a big regional boss banging heads together.
“Effective leadership of the region isn’t just about singlehandedly imposing your will on others; it’s about fostering greater cooperation between local councils, businesses and communities.
“A mayor of Birmingham, elected by the city’s 700,000 voters, would be uniquely placed to foster that collaboration, playing a key role as a member of the Local Enterprise Partnerships, Integrated Transport Authority and other regional bodies.”
Barrister and former Birmingham City Council manager Mirza Ahmad has announced he could stand as an independent candidate for Birmingham mayor if city residents vote to create one in May’s referendum.
Dr Ahmad, the council’s former corporate director of governance, said he would “encourage people to vote for change from the current stale party political system that is totally out of touch with people”.
But he claimed it was too soon formally to announce he would be a candidate, because it depended on the results of a referendum on May 3 when Birmingham voters will decide whether to create a directly-elected mayor or not.
Sion Simon, a former MP who is competing against Ms Stuart and former city council leader Sir Albert Bore for the Labour nomination, is set to step up his campaign in early March by publishing a list of supporters.
However, before any candidates are chosen there is the matter of the referendum on May 3, when Birmingham residents will have the chance to vote to create a directly-elected mayor – or not.