A proposition of exquisite irony awaits Birmingham Conservatives, who have it within their grasp to take sole control of the city council – but only if they are prepared to sacrifice both their principles and their friends.
It is well known that Tory council leader Mike Whitby will become shadow mayor of Birmingham with all the powers of a mayor when the Localism Bill passes into law at the end of the year.
He will remain in that position until a mayoral election is held in May 2013, unless a referendum next year results in a majority of Birmingham voters saying they don’t want to be governed by a mayor, in which case Whitby can pack his bags and disappear.
What is perhaps not quite so well understood is that shadow mayor Whitby will have the power to select his own cabinet, which can have a minimum of two members plus himself, and that he can do this and almost anything else he pleases without gaining approval from city councillors.
In other words, in one glorious leap, the Conservative Party can wave goodbye to its Liberal Democrat coalition partners since 2004 and take sole control of Birmingham’s affairs at least until May 2013 – even if Labour gains a majority of council seats in the 2012 elections.
Will Whitby seize the moment? Will the man who campaigned against city mayors, as did most of his council colleagues, have the courage to grasp the levers of power and if he does will he adopt a slimline cabinet without Liberal Democrat membership?
Certainly, there is no reason why a Tory mayor should hand out cabinet posts to Liberal Democrats. Plenty of Conservative councillors would think it very odd if Whitby wanted to continue with the coalition arrangements when he really does not have to.
There is no reason why a city mayor should have a 10-person cabinet, since all of the power is channelled through the mayor. Two or a maximum three in the cabinet would seem to be appropriate, leaving Whitby with a major headache. Who to get rid of? Surely not Rudge, or Lines? Might be a case of bye-bye Les Lawrence and Randal Brew, however.
One is reminded of the quip delivered by grandee Tory Nigel Birch when Conservative prime minister Harold Macmillan sacked half his cabinet in an attempt to rejuvinate his failing government: “Greater love has no man than that he lay down his friends for his life.”
The dilemma facing Whitby can be seen from both a personal and party point of view.
On a personal level, becoming shadow mayor will give him an additional year in office that he never expected, given the likelihood of Labour gaining a majority of seats on the council in May 2012. It would also enable him to see through two projects that he regards as his prime achievements, construction of the new civic library in Centenary Square and the metro tram extension.
On a purely party political basis, it would be a morale-booster if the Conservatives could boast about being in control of the biggest city outside of London at a time when a Tory-led government may be feeling the wrath of the electorate.
Councillor Whitby has been very quiet about his intentions although the absence in recent months of tirrades against all-powerful corrupt American mayors as a dire warning about what might happen here, which were once a regular pattern, may speak volumes.
It’s not solely the Conservative Party facing some interesting decisions over the mayoralty issue. Labour candidate Sion Simon’s campaign is picking up pace at such a rate that it is surely beginning to dawn on Sir Albert Bore, leader of the city council Labour group, that Mr Simon is looking like a shoo-in for his party’s nomination.
Iron Angle has learned that Mr Simon, the former MP for Erdington, is building up an impressive tram of advisers and backers – some have come out publicly, such as Birmingham MPs Khalid Mahmood and Steve McCabe, while others are working quietly behind the scenes.
Mr Simon recently signed up former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith to provide him with expert advice on crime and policing. He is also working closely with management consultants, who have been asked to produce a blueprint for radical reorganisation of city council departments.
For reorganisation, read slimming down, getting rid of unproductive silo governance and departmental jealousies, and most of all sacking council officers who, in Mr Simon’s view, are simply not up to the job.
He takes a refreshingly can-do attitude towards change and is determinded to overcome Birmingham’s tendency to be over-influenced by cautious council lawyers of the “you can’t possibly do that” school of thought.
One of his first policy declarations is likely to be an instruction that the council’s top officers must live in Birmingham, although whether Sutton Coldfield counts as Birmingham in this context remains to be seen.
He is also promising to devise ways of making the city’s devolution programme “genuinely meaningful” by enabling communities to take decisions about local service delivery, although he recognises that this will be an extremely difficult trick to bring off given a mayoral system where the important decisions are expected to be taken by one person.
He has been pleasantly surprised by the interest in the benefits that a mayoral system may bring to Birmingham being shown by the city’s business community.
A well attended Chamber of Commerce meeting listened with intererest to his plans, particularly a suggestion that he could appoint private sector advisers with delegated powers to take executive decisions.
The times they are a changing, but only if that referendum delivers a ‘yes’ vote.