Birmingham City Council’s next leader, John Clancy, needs to be an excellent political tightrope walker as he steers the authority through the next few months.
Having been handed the leadership by the skin of his teeth in an election run-off with Penny Holbrook , he will be ushered in as leader on Tuesday, December 1.
It was a moment of personal triumph for the affable Clancy – he has coveted the top job for so long and steadily built support for his cause on the back of a more radical approach to running Britain’s second city.
Certainly his two main rivals, Penny Holbrook and Ian Ward, although offering different leadership styles, were seen very much as continuity candidates ready to keep the good ship steady and not upset the Government overseers currently scrutinising their every move .
Whereas John Clancy was promising something much more transformative, bearing down on the costs of major contracts like Service Birmingham , his free school meals for all primary age children policy, directing regeneration away from the city centre and looking for new forms of finance like his Brummie Bonds policy and pension pot investments .
He also promised more structural reform within the council leadership, including measures to end the vast chasm between the ten cabinet members and the other 110 councillors which many felt existed under Sir Albert Bore’s stewardship .
A new set of deputy cabinet members would bridge the gap between the back benches and the top table. It is assumed these would be unpaid roles, similar to the existing “Champions” who are appointed to look at how certain groups are affected by policy – we currently have Youth, Victims and Veterans champions on the backbenches. He also wants four assistant leaders to drive devolution, which some have taken to mean extra deputy leaders.
It was certainly the most radical platform of any of the leadership candidates and most like a full election manifesto with policy pledges and reforms.
But the new leader may struggle to get his platform picked up.
The immediate priorities are to continue with the implementation of the Kerslake report reforms, sorting out where next year’s budget axe will fall and, I understand, he has been told by the Labour hierarchy to avoid making personnel changes at the top.
It is widely assumed that some of those councillors who so publicly endorsed him will want reward for delivering the result – no matter how much this is officially denied.
Cynics can read this as either jobs for votes or the more optimistic can see it as surrounding yourself with like minded motivated people.
Whatever the answer, it seems he is being leaned on not to make cabinet changes at this stage and will need to persuade colleagues to wait until after the May local election for their reward.
But how long will it be before those who supported him start grumbling and seeking another who can answer their personal ambitions?
There is very little wriggle room – and this is where his problem will lie.
Clancy, as he moves into the new office, faces that dilemma of all politicians who achieve power after making their name in vocal opposition. It is a very difficult balancing act and one which he will need to master very quickly.
Birmingham Labour 'not trusted' to run their own election
Meanwhile, the national Labour Party is not only paying close attention to how the Birmingham Labour group behaves going forward but has been keeping a closer than usual eye on the conduct of the leadership selection.
Those following the election night online will recall what a long drawn-out process it all was with satirical tweeter known as ‘Paradise Circus’ joking that Sir John Chilcot must be overseeing things.
But it turns out that Labour officials from London, as well as the party's own West Midlands staff, were brought in to ensure fair play. This followed a rumour that some councillors might photograph their completed ballot to confirm their loyalty. There were also, I understand, further concern about pressure being applied to some councillors. The trouble is that rumours of this type are usually third hand, never made on the record, and there is always a degree of doubt – is it true or is it an unfair smear?
Whatever the case, there was certainly a strong feeling among the Labour Party’s National Executive Committee that it needed to act to remove any shred of doubt over the result. As one councillor said to me: “They couldn’t trust us (the Birmingham Labour Group) to run our own election properly.”
Deep wounds in the camp
Given that the vote was about as close as it could get, not only between Clancy and Holbrook in the final round, but also between Holbrook and Ward for second and third place, it is not surprising the various camps have been trying to work out whose support they didn’t get and who swapped sides.
John Clancy had secured 30 public endorsements from councillors before the ballot and suggested that up to ten silent backers were firmly in his camp – so supporters are wondering who backtracked during the secret ballot. “We’ve got a very good idea, we think one or two were at his celebration party,” warned one of his leading acolytes.
Meanwhile, the Holbrook camp is bemoaning the five Ian Ward supporters who did not back her on second preferences as well as two who spoiled their ballot papers – any of them could have handed her the keys to the leader’s office.
And finally Ian Ward’s followers are blaming Sir Albert Bore for pushing up Holbrook, splitting Ward’s support and ending up with Bore’s arch-rival Clancy as a result. While in public there are signs of unity and honouring the decision of the party, behind the scenes some will find it hard to forgive their colleagues.