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Questions for Clark could make this mayoral debate a corker

Questions for Clark could make this mayoral debate a corker

🕔20.Mar 2012

Amongst the plethora of setpiece mayoral debates in Birmingham between now and May 3, the one on March 29 under the auspices of the Institute for Government stands out.

For me, the imprimateur of a body such as the IfG or Centre for Cities is the mark of a good event that delivers the right people and the right content, and this one serves up a panel that should be able to breathe some much-needed life into the mayoral issue.

Real-life mayors such as Lewisham’s Steve Bullock and former Vancouver mayor Gordon Campbell can describe the view from the mayoral hot seat, and serial mayoral drum-banger Lord Adonis will no doubt provide a typically passionate but reasoned case for mayors.

I’m most looking forward, though, to hearing from cities minister Greg Clark. He’s the man who the PM has put in charge of winning the referenda in ten cities on May 3, but I’m not sure that the biggest battles he faces aren’t within his own party.

First, his call to ministerial colleagues in Whitehall to offer up more powers for city mayors fell on deaf ears before Christmas, meaning Birmingham, Coventry and other cities are being asked to vote for a ‘pig in a poke’ such is the Government’s lack of clarity over exactly what powers mayors will have.

He’s ploughing quite a lonely furrow in pursuit of the mayoral dream, is Mr Clark.  Ministerial colleagues don’t want to give away anything to the regions, and in the cities themselves, stalwart Tory councillors view elected mayors with all the enthusiasm of turkeys counting down to Christmas.

Secondly, as a senior Conservative MP, he must be squirming at the prospect of Labour being all but a shoe-in to win the mayoral office in November – a prize that only exists because the Tories put it in their manifesto. And it’s not even as if the Conservatives will be able to say ‘we gave it our best shot’ when looking back at the mayoral conest in years to come.

Let’s be frank. Mike Whitby will lead the Conservatives to defeat in the local elections in May, and it looks all but certain that the party will reward him with the prospect of suffering another humiliation just six months later as he loses the mayoral bid as well.

What a dismal prospect for poor Mike, who in my view doesn’t deserve such a shambolic end to a political career that has not been without its successes.

In the unlikely event that an alternative Conservative candidate does come forward, the Tories’ disjointed network of autonomous constituency parties seems likely to cause more embarrasment as it struggles to select the chosen hopeful. It could slow the process for several weeks beyond the June 15 deadline Labour has set to choose its own candidate.

It would be a remarkably charismatic, almost messianic Tory to turn around the electoral odds in the short autumn months of the campaign proper. If one exists, they’re keeping remarkably quiet.

As someone remarked to me recently: “Put a red rosette on a donkey and they’ll be elected mayor of Birmingham.” The city has eight Labour MPs out of nine. How realistic is it to expect a Tory mayor on November 15?

So Mr Clark is actively promoting a Conservative policy that not only does his own party have no chance of exploiting, but barr a miracle, it will also give the impression that it’s not really put much effort into.

I hope someone puts this to him on March 29. I’ll certainly be there to hear his answer.

For details, visit the IfG site here.

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