Labour awash with rumours as McKay resignation letter is deciphered
Birmingham Labour party was stunned today by the resignation of cabinet member James McKay and his claim that Sir Albert Bore is no longer the right person to lead the city council. Chamberlain Files chief blogger Paul Dale deciphers McKay’s resignation letter and wonders whether colleagues may also feel compelled to resign.
The letter is a mere 350 words in length. But it strikes rapier-like at the heart of issues raised in the Kerslake Review and warns bluntly that, far from making the cultural changes required of it, Birmingham city council is at risk of “shutting itself away” and not meeting the challenges it faces.
James McKay begins by reminding his political boss council leader Sir Albert Bore that “we need a simple, convincing political vision, one that can inspire citizens, get partners around the table, and be a clear map for how the council itself needs to move forward”.
The implication is clear enough: there is no simple, understandable, vision, which is exactly what Kerslake said ten months ago.
With the Birmingham Independent Improvement Panel days away from reporting to Local Government Secretary Greg Clark on the council’s progress, a cabinet member is warning that very little has changed since July, when the panel doubted whether the city’s leadership really understood what was required of them.
McKay warns that change can’t be delivered by the council leader and cabinet members working alone and picks up on another key Kerslake criticism – the cabinet and leader must be more inclusive, work with the wider council, partners and organisations for the good of Birmingham.
If we shut ourselves away, the city will change around us, regardless. We have a duty to be part of that change. We’ve got to throw open the doors, permanently.
McKay’s resignation came 24 hours after a Labour group meeting where backbenchers complained that cabinet members and Sir Albert were going through “a box-ticking exercise” to convince the improvement panel that consultation on the Future Council programme was taking place.
In reality, each cabinet member gave a 15 minute presentation and there was time for questions. But the meeting was thinly attended and some people drifted away before the end.
McKay reiterates the panel’s doubts that the council truly understands partnership working:
A simple, convincing vision will unlock the enthusiasm of partners across the city, who right now are ready to step up, but want leadership from the politicians. Partners want to work with us, but they need to know we want to work with them, too.
We cannot do this without them, but we can’t fake it, either. We need to look them in the eye, and show we mean what we say.
There then follows a coded, but explosive, message to his colleagues:
This process can only be led by Labour – the only party in Birmingham willing and able to face up to the challenge. It can also only be led by Birmingham. Further government intervention could never deliver the change the city needs, because it won’t be rooted in the city it seeks to change.
McKay is playing to the fears of many councillors that Greg Clark will lose confidence in Birmingham’s ability to change, will send in commissioners to run the council and that Labour will lose control of Britain’s second largest city. All of the cabinet members would lose their jobs. This is a Domesday scenario that would shake and shame the party nationally were it to happen.
It is actually unthinkable that this could happen. It is clearly in the best interests of Labour to work with Mr Clark to ensure that it does not happen.
Finally, McKay damns Sir Albert with faint praise, before sticking the knife in:
Your contribution to Birmingham has been enormous, and the city will always be in your debt. However, I no longer believe we can make the changes Birmingham needs under your leadership. You have a right to expect unity from your cabinet members, and as such I am stepping down from my role as Cabinet Member for Inclusion and Community Safety, with immediate effect.
Some obvious questions arise from this. Is McKay planning a leadership challenge himself? Is he working alone? Will other resignations follow? Can Sir Albert survive another poor improvement panel report?
McKay has reportedly said he is ruling nothing in and nothing out at this stage.
Several of his colleagues have suggested McKay may be playing the role of Sir Geoffrey Howe, whose resignation from Mrs Thatcher’s cabinet and coruscating Commons speech hastened the end of Thatcher as prime minister. Others say he may be more of a Michael Heseltine figure, resigning so that he can stand for the leadership.
Unsurprisingly, the Labour group is awash with rumours, particularly over the absence from last night’s group meeting of deputy council leader Ian Ward, who is abroad on holiday. The date of the meeting had been known for a while, but Sir Albert was left to read out Ward’s contribution while explaining that his deputy was away.
It is also being suggested that at least one further cabinet member is “dithering” and may resign before the week is out.
Questions are being asked about McKay’s relationship with Edgbaston MP Gisela Stuart – the two are close political allies. One senior Labour figure said he did not believe McKay would have acted without at least consulting Mrs Stuart. Another claimed that Sir Albert “has lost the support of Birmingham MPs”.
Clearly, the next week or so will be a critical period both for the city council as a whole and Birmingham Labour party in particular. More cabinet resignations would surely spell the end for Sir Albert, and another “must do better” improvement panel report could also usher in changes at the top.
On the other hand, a “reasonable progress” report from the panel could see the whole Kerslake circus roll on into 2016 and in that case all eyes would be on the Labour group’s AGM where Sir Albert will certainly face a further challenge to his leadership.
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