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Never say never in politics: It’s Lord Whitby of Harborne

Never say never in politics: It’s Lord Whitby of Harborne

🕔01.Aug 2013

WhitbylibraryMike Whitby has finally got what he wanted all along. Fifteen months after his eight-year stint as leader of Birmingham City Council ended he is to be ennobled with a seat in the House of Lords.

It won’t be Lord Whitby of Birmingham, since Digby Jones has first dibs on that moniker, but perhaps Lord Whitby of Harborne, his council seat since 1997, will fit the bill. Or possibly Lord Whitby of Warley Woods since he does not, as his many critics never cease to stress, live in Birmingham.

You can bet that Mike Whitby will be running around like a dog with two tails. Those who worked for him from 2004 to 2012 were often surprised by the way that the question ‘how can we get an honour for Mike?’ would be trotted out on a regular basis.

And that question was asked on behalf of a man who claims to have no ego at all.

To be fair, it was beginning to look a bit iffy that Birmingham had produced a council leader who hadn’t been given a gong. We’ve had Sir Albert Bore and Sir Dick Knowles, both Labour, and Sir Neville Bosworth, like Whitby a Conservative. But until today, zilch for Mike. Not even an OBE.

There will be those who ask, inevitably, what has this man done to deserve a peerage?

Well, in the murky world of politics and the honours system, Whitby’s elevation does have some logic to it. If the Conservative Party is looking for a working peer from the world of local government, then Mike’s name was always likely to be close to the top of the pile. There won’t have been many other Tory ex-council leaders on the list to choose from.

A more interesting question is why wasn’t the peerage awarded a year ago after he ceased to be city council leader, which would have been the obvious time for it to happen? Perhaps the powers that be were taking their time to check out a politician with the unfortunate ability to rub up the wrong way many of his Tory colleagues as well as the Labour opposition.

Gareth Compton, a former Birmingham city councillor, greeted today’s announcement by describing Cllr Whitby on Facebook as “simply ghastly”. Compton added for good measure that the rationale behind the decision to award a peerage “defies understanding”.

The truth is that Mike Whitby never fitted the traditional Conservative mould. He joined the council in 1997 and was group leader by 2003. This unseemly haste meant that he was regarded as something of a Johnnie come lately who achieved high office without doing the groundwork, and crucially without building a network of close supporters.

There were some who even doubted he was a Tory in the traditional sense, complaining that his interests lay in “promoting the Mike Whitby Party”.

But he had luck on his side, which all politicians need to prosper. After the 2004 council elections produced a stalemate with Labour as the largest party without overall control, Whitby with his touchy-feely brand of liberal Conservatism was the obvious candidate to hatch a deal with the Liberal Democrats.

Had he failed to do so, the council would have ground to a halt under a minority Labour administration. The Lib Dems would never have worked with Sir Albert Bore so soon after the Birmingham local elections postal ballot scandal, and neither would the Conservatives.

As for Whitby’s 2004-2012 administration, now is not the time for a detailed analysis, save to say that there were some achievements and some failures.

The bottom line, however, is that Mike Whitby managed against all the odds to hold together a most unlikely coalition full of macho egos as great as or even greater than his own.

New Street Station was refurbished, the new library built and the metro tram system extended. All three projects were described at times as vanity projects, but all three are now being furiously promoted by Sir Albert Bore and Labour councillors.

A major business transformation project to save the council £1 billion over 10 years was pushed through against tremendous scepticism, although the driving force here was the Liberal Democrat leader Paul Tilsley.

No one could have predicted in 2004 the huge public spending cuts that would be imposed on Birmingham from 2010, but if business transformation had not existed the council would be in an even more desperate state now than it is and having to find an extra £350 million in savings.

On the minus side, the first stages of the 2010-2012 cuts programme were not handled well. Cllr Whitby and his cabinet colleagues hid quite disgracefully behind unelected officers who were sent to address public meetings and defend policy, while the politicians cowered in the Council House and kept up the pretence that all of this could be achieved with few compulsory redundancies.

And while it is true that Whitby’s coalition got to grips with the equal pay issue after Labour dithered, the tactics used were questionable. As the months and years went by, the no-win –no-pay lawyers moved in with the result that the council now finds itself with a £1 billion bill to sort out the mess.

As a leader, Whitby constantly faced criticism from his own backbenchers who complained about his arrogance and failure to involve them in policy making.  He faced one serious leadership challenge, from Cllr Randal Brew.

But this type of criticism is common currency on a council with 120 members. Sir Albert Bore, it must be pointed out, is facing similar backbench anger and challenges over his apparent failure to consult.

There will probably never be another Birmingham city council leader like Mike Whitby.

The cult of leadership was promoted relentlessly, from the chauffeur driven Jag (inherited by Albert Bore) to the phalanx of Praetorian Guard staff accompanying him wherever he went, to the shambolic speeches and mangling of grammar.

And yet, his sheer enthusiasm for and belief in Birmingham can never be doubted. There are many other less deserving peerages awarded each year in the name of politics.

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