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Cameron boosts chances of Birmingham getting a mayor – but has he handed an opportunity to Liam Byrne?

Cameron boosts chances of Birmingham getting a mayor – but has he handed an opportunity to Liam Byrne?

🕔29.Mar 2012

David Cameron's picture on the 10 Downing Stre...

Birmingham’s mayoral debate has moved a long way in a comparatively short space of time.

A few months ago talk was confined to how on earth enough people would be persuaded to vote yes in the referendum when the Government stubbornly refused to specify the additional powers and budgets that cities would gain if they opted for a mayor.

There were desperate-sounding hints from Ministers that cities voting against a mayor could still qualify for “City Deals”, based on devolved powers from Whitehall, as long as they could prove that they were capable of dealing responsibly with their enhanced roles.

And yet, as May 3 draws ever closer, the man who is really behind the move to introduce mayors in the major English cities is making it clear that there really is only one option on the table. David Cameron is promising to establish a cabinet of city mayors, giving the leader of Birmingham unparalleled access to the prime minister, while his Government is making it clear for the first time that cities with mayors stand more chance of getting meaningfully devolved powers and budgets than those without.

This does not surprise me in the slightest. Having interviewed Mr Cameron a couple of times in the run up to the 2010 General Election, it was obvious then that his passion for mayors would play a central role in any administration he might lead. The unrelenting pressures of dealing with the dire state of the economy could have relegated mayors to the long grass, but it is to the prime minister’s credit that he has continued to run with such a radical reform of local government.

He’s had to play a canny game, given the deep scepticism on this issue among most Liberal Democrats and a fair few Conservatives who view mayors as the first step along the road to sleazy American city hall politics, riddled with potential for corruption and cronyism.

With just over a month to go until the referendum on May 3, I confidently expect some more “clarification” about the role of mayors to slip out from Westminster. Estimates of additional financial packages for the likes of Birmingham, perhaps?

Of course, the ramping up of the mayoral issue is not necessarily good news for Birmingham’s longstanding Labour candidates Sion Simon, Gisela Stuart and Sir Albert Bore. They weren’t at Downing Street to hear Mr Cameron drop all sorts of hints about why it would be a good idea for cities to opt for mayors, but they will have read the press coverage quoting his view that national politicians who have made their name at Westminster might seek new challenges by becoming mayors of Britain’s great cities.

No prizes for guessing one name here immediately. Liam Byrne, former Chief Secretary to the Treasury and MP for Hodge Hill, said by friends to be “agonising” over whether he should declare his intention to seek the Labour nomination to run for mayor of Birmingham. My view is that he will announce precisely that on May 4, his decision made slightly easier to justify by Mr Cameron’s remarks but chiefly off the back of a Boundary Commission review that will see his constituency disappear at the next General Election.

I’ve yet to come across a Birmingham Labour party member with much of a good word to say about Mr Byrne. The man who penned the “money’s all gone” note for his successor at the Treasury is often regarded as something of a prickly outsider and too clever by half, but the fact remains that in political terms he is a Big Beast……in fact, the biggest beast on the Labour side that Birmingham has to offer. As well as working on national Labour strategy for the next election, he’s been showing his willingness to knuckle down to local issues by working with the Labour group to develop a manifesto for next month’s Birmingham City Council elections.

If Mr Byrne does decide to run for mayor, it is surely unthinkable that Labour’s NEC would not include him on the shortlist of candidates from which Birmingham’s party members will choose a mayoral candidate. Sion Simon undoubtedly has his supporters in Labour’s West Midlands regional office, but it would be a snub of colossal proportions were Mr Byrne to be told that he wasn’t good enough to be included on the short list.

That begs the question: just how long is Labour’s short list going to be? There are already three declared candidates and the possible addition of Mr Byrne makes that four, which is I suppose just about manageable. But that could scupper Mr Simon’s hopes of winning outright on the first ballot by polling more than 50 per cent, and would also leave the result exposed to the uncertainties of second preference votes.

Is it possible that even now, with the final furlong in sight and having seemingly led the race for so long, that Mr Simon is destined to stumble and fall in the manner of Devon Loch in the 1956 Grand National? An event long remembered, but never properly explained.

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