Rumours that Liam Byrne is seriously considering seeking the Labour Party nomination to run for elected mayor of Birmingham simply will not disappear, even though the Hodge Hill MP has never commented publicly on the issue.
National newspaper journalists appear to be the sole source of claims that Byrne, Shadow Secretary for Work and Pensions, is going to declare his hand soon. They are of course being briefed by someone, who does not wish to be named.
There are some reasons to suppose that there may be some truth to this. First, Mr Byrne is facing a tough fight to retain a Birmingham parliamentary seat following proposed boundary changes that will see his Hodge Hill constituency disappear. He could be selected for a new-look Ladywood seat, but this is thought unlikely by Labour insiders who think that sitting MP Shabana Mahmood is safe.
Second, although Mr Byrne is undoubtedly a Labour heavyweight on the national scene and regarded as a cerebral policymaker, he will always be saddled with the poorly judged note he left to David Laws, his Lib Dem successor as Chief Secretary to the Treasury after the 2010 General Election: “I am afraid to tell you there’s no money left”.
There are those who believe it will be difficult for Mr Byrne to return to government at the very top level should Labour win the next General Election, and near impossible for him to fulfil his dream of becoming Chancellor.
Given the uncertainty over his future at Westminster, Mr Byrne may feel that running Britain’s largest local authority with a £3.5 billion budget is a job worthy of his intellectual powers even if he only served one four-year term before returning to the Commons in a new seat.
His first challenge, though, would be to make it on to Labour’s selection shortlist. There are already three prospective candidates – former Erdington MP Sion Simon, Edgbaston MP Gisela Stuart and Birmingham City Council Labour group leader Sir Albert Bore. Senior Labour sources have hinted that the final shortlist put to party members may be a very short list indeed, certainly no more than three candidates and possibly only two.
My feeling is that Mrs Stuart is a certainty for inclusion. She is at the moment the only woman candidate and under Labour’s gender equality guidelines would be guaranteed a place in the final line-up. More importantly, she is viewed by party bigwigs as just the feisty, free-thinking type of person likely to appeal to a cross-section of Birmingham voters.
It would be a huge shock if Mr Simon did not make it onto the shortlist, having declared his intention to run for mayor before the 2010 General Election. He is impeccably connected at the highest level, counting the likes of Ed Balls and Tom Watson as close friends.
So if Mrs Stuart and Mr Simon are in, what about Sir Albert Bore? You would imagine, if he did not make it on to the shortlist, that the less than subtle message coming from Labour would be interpreted as ‘good bye Sir Albert, and thanks for everything’. It is highly likely that Sir Albert will become city council leader in May when Labour finally wins enough seats to topple the Tory-Lib Dem coalition. It seems very unlikely to me that a largely sentimental party would deny Sir Albert the chance to run for the mayoral selection.
Mr Byrne is leaving it very late to declare his hand. This may be because he is trying to get an idea of the support his mayoral bid might attract from just under 4,000 Labour members across Birmingham.
If the councillors and other Labour members I talk to are any judge, Mr Byrne would be unlikely to win a popularity contest among the party faithful. Once described to me as ‘a short man with attitude’, he proceeded to knock heads together when Minister for the West Midlands, but did not always make friends.
A reputation for being a somewhat difficult character, rightly or wrongly, was enhanced when in 2008 a memo from Mr Byrne to his staff was leaked to the press. In it, he listed several demands including his requirement for a cappuccino on his arrival in the office, an espresso at 3 pm, and soup between 12:30 pm and 1 pm.
The note also instructed officials to tell him “not what you think I should know, but you expect I will get asked”, and added that he would blame staff for any “unacceptable” work. The note turned out to be two years old, but that didn’t prevent Tory, Lib Dem and even some Labour MPs chuckling at Mr Byrne’s expense.
Another problem likely to crop up if Mr Byrne were to run to become elected mayor of Birmingham is that he is not regarded as having any Brummie roots to speak of. Born in Warrington, Mr Byrne worked for merchant bankers N M Rothschild before co-founding a technology company and becoming regarded as one of Tony Blair’s bright young New Labour hopefuls.
He was controversially ‘parachuted’ into the Hodge Hill parliamentary seat in 2004, replacing Terry Davis MP. Mr Byrne managed to win the subsequent by-election with a slender majority of 460, although this was increased substantially at the 2005 General Election.
It is perhaps significant that the carefully placed stories about Mr Byrne’s intentions in national newspapers usually suggest that he is in favour of Labour’s mayoral candidate being selected in an open primary election, where anyone in Birmingham would be able to take part. Well, he would be, wouldn’t he?
If all of this suggests that Mr Byrne is extremely unlikely to become mayor of Birmingham, there are just one or two imponderables to consider. First, his name on the ballot paper would at least be known to a large number of voters, which is always an advantage. Second, if the rumours are true that Ed Miliband wants a bigger-name candidate for mayor of Birmingham than Mr Simon, Sir Albert and Mrs Stuart, then Mr Byrne could be in the right place at the right time.
And finally, if Mr Miliband and Mr Balls have actually had enough of Mr Byrne, what better way of easing him out than shunting him in to the biggest job in local government?
- The 4,000 Labour Party members who will choose Brum’s first elected mayor (thechamberlainfiles.wordpress.com)