The cockerel in the Council House courtyard didn’t crow three times, but Mike Whitby’s claim that the Conservatives haven’t been in a coalition with the Liberal Democrats for the past eight years was still a denial on an almost breath-taking scale.
Whitby, the Tory leader of Birmingham City Council until May 22 when Labour’s Sir Albert Bore takes over, was being goaded with the C-word when he finally snapped: “We were never in a coalition.”
He was of course attempting to distinguish between a formal coalition and his preferred form of words for the council’s current arrangements, a partnership between Tories and Liberal Democrats. Or, as Coun Whitby insists on calling it: the Progressive Partnership.
The sharp exchange at the Council Business Management Committee did however raise two important issues: namely, the immediate future of Coun Whitby as leader of a depleted council Conservative group and the rather tricky matter of how Birmingham’s Tories and Liberal Democrats de-couple from their partnership.
Mike Whitby is gamely attempting to hang on as Tory leader and his chances of doing so appear to be enhanced by the failure of any compelling alternative candidate to come forward.
Tory sources have confirmed that there are three possible challengers, and they are talking to each other in an attempt to work out who has the best chance of toppling Coun Whitby, but there are doubts whether any of them could command enough support to secure a majority in a leadership contest.
It is actually quite difficult to assess the strength of the anti-Whitby camp, since the council leader’s most outspoken opponents have been around for a long time and are simply revisiting the issues raised when Randal Brew failed to defeat Coun Whitby three years ago.
One Conservative councillor, who naturally enough did not wish to be named, said it was odds-on that Whitby would survive for another year. None of his challengers “want it enough to make it happen”, the councillor claimed before adding: “I won’t deny that people have been talking about a leadership challenge, but I would be very surprised if it happened.”
The feeling is that the Tories will spend the next 12 months discussing among themselves who the best candidate might be to replace Coun Whitby as leader in 2013.
However, there’s no escaping the fury of some Tories, who have never taken to Whitby’s love-in with the Liberal Democrats. One senior Birmingham Tory told Chamberlain Files: “His career is over, whether it be Friday or a year Friday, he doesn’t even pretend to have a future any longer. And, as long as you don’t attribute any of that to me, you can use all of it.”
The source went on to suggest that Coun Whitby is offering to give up his right to select the shadow cabinet and will also promise to hand the final say on policy-making to the Tory group in return for being re-elected as leader.
If Coun Whitby does remain group leader, he will represent a tangible reminder of Birmingham’s eight-year coalition rule. And if that is the case, it remains to be seen whether the next few months will herald an amicable wind-down for the coalition, or a messy divorce with both sides arguing over who can take credit for the council’s performance since 2004? It may be the case that national influences will come into play, since the last thing the Government needs is the embarrassment of a regular slanging match between Tories and Lib Dems in Birmingham.
Former Lib Dem cabinet member Martin Mullaney, who lost his Moseley seat to Labour on May 3, thinks the two parties will still work together in opposition, although on a less formal basis.
Mr Mullaney said: “We are still on friendly terms and I would have thought the relationship will be maintained.
“The partnership worked very well and I never heard any heated words. If there were heated words, they were Conservative against Conservative and Lib Dem against Lib Dem, there was a gentlemen’s agreement that we would never have a go at each other.
“Both sides came together because they had Birmingham’s best interests at heart, and the arrangement worked really well.”
He believes it is a mistake to compare Birmingham’s Tory-Lib Dem coalition with the Government, where tensions between the two sides are all too obvious. “The Conservatives in London tend to be a lot more right wing than they are in Birmingham,” he added.
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