He’s been off the radar for a while, but this week stirring deep in the background Birmingham’s only big beast, Lord Digby Jones, made one of his occasional forays into commenting on this city’s status.
He didn’t actually say anything very new – yes, we know Birmingham has appalling unemployment, a lack of workforce skills and that its football teams will probably never rank alongside Manchester United.
But Digby took it a stage further when speaking to the BBC, by stating that poor civic leadership was a contributory factor to Birmingham losing its second city status to Manchester.
Birmingham City Council’s Tory leader, Mike Whitby, breaking cover after a week of uncharacteristic silence following disastrous local election results, was on to this slur like a shot, accusing Lord Jones of never missing an opportunity to put the boot into Birmingham.
Or in the original Whitbyspeak: “Digby will stab a little pin into the brand of Birmingham at any given time.”
Lord Jones’s intervention is being seen by some of the chattering classes as an indication that the former CBI director general and government minister may be planning to run for mayor of Birmingham. I have no idea whether this is probable or not; but what I do know is that Lord Jones has consistently refused to answer media questions about any interest he may have in being Birmingham’s first elected mayor.
He hasn’t said yes, and he hasn’t said no. Not in public, at any rate.
Were he to throw his heavyweight hat into the ring, all bets would be off and we’d have to go scuttling to Ladbrokes to get the odds for a flutter on a truly independent figure who might just make the mayoral election worth tuning into.
The question is: has Lord Jones got the nerve to put his mayoral nomination papers where his mouth is?
Come off it Digby, Birmingham deserves an answer one way or another. Are you content to continue as an armchair critic, or are you up for the top job?
This also happens to have been the week when Mike Whitby made his first comment about whether he would put himself forward for his party’s mayoral nomination. His reply, preposterously, was that he has no view even though he is on course to become shadow mayor of Birmingham with the powers of a mayor when the Localism Bill passes into law later this year.
It is a little difficult for Coun Whitby, having campaigned heavily against elected mayors 10 years ago when he succeeded in derailing the possibility that Birmingham could follow London by becoming the second English city to have a mayor.
Has he changed his mind since then? He’d be mad if he hadn’t, since the shadow mayoralty looks like being his on a plate guaranteeing him the job until May 2013 at least.
Some things, however, never change. Sir Albert Bore, The Great Survivor, saw off the latest challenge to his leadership of Birmingham’s Labour group in the manner of someone swatting a noisy but very small fly, sending the annoying insect spinning lifelessly to the floor.
In the annals of Albert leadership challenges – this was, I think, the seventh in 12 years, but one tends to lose count – John Clancy’s effort didn’t rate very highly. The Quinton councillor, back on the council after a five-year break, managed nine votes against Albert’s 43.
Oh, how we hacks longed for a return to the days when Sir Albert, clinging on by the skin of his teeth with a majority of one, would breezily thank the Labour group for demonstrating its faith in him and carry on as if nothing had happened.
For Clancy, it was a case of as you were. Five years ago his council career ended abruptly when he teamed up with fellow Labour councillor Mike Olley for a crack at Sir Albert. Olley went for leader, Clancy for deputy. Both were soundly thrashed.
As well as being a highly respected economics expert and business lecturer, Clancy is well known for giving horse racing tips to his friends. Jolly good tips they are, too, with his record in most of the big races standing up to any professional gambler.
If I could have obtained odds on Sir Albert beating Clancy, safe to say the mortgage would have gone on it. As an academic, Clancy may have plenty of grey matter. But as a politician, his tactics left something to be desired. His bid for the leadership followed Labour’s best council election performance for years, picking up 14 seats under Sir Albert’s watch, making it almost certain that the party will gain overall control of the city council next May.
The basis of Clancy’s campaign was that Labour should have done even better this year and did not do so because of Sir Albert’s caution in failing to send campaigners and canvassers to some of the less marginal, but still winnable, seats.
It is true that Conservatives and Liberal Democrats held on by tiny majorities in three or four wards, but Clancy’s argument had little appeal to colleagues who regarded him as most unfairly kicking Sir Albert in his moment of victory.
Clearly, Clancy’s challenge has to be seen against the backdrop of the only game in town, the race to become elected mayor of Birmingham.
Had he toppled Sir Albert, Clancy would have positioned himself nicely as leader of the council majority group post-May 2012 for a possible crack at the Labour nomination for the 2013 mayoral election.
Or, given that his advisers are also advising former Erdington MP Sion Simon, the only declared mayoral candidate from a serious political party, could it have been that Coun Clancy was attempting to line himself up with a prize cabinet post under Mayor Simon? Coun Clancy denies this, but then he would wouldn’t he?