Ruthless Clancy opts for soft shoe shuffle, but there’s more to come
Chamberlain Files’ chief blogger Paul Dale reflects on a week marked by dramatic cabinet changes at the top of Birmingham city council.
Politics is a rough old trade, as John Major once observed.
The Tory prime minister probably didn’t have Birmingham in mind when he made his much-quoted remark, but he might as well have done given the city’s reputation as a challenging battleground for even the thickest skinned public figures.
This week, John Clancy finally got around to announcing a cabinet reshuffle, almost six months after succeeding Sir Albert Bore as the Labour leader of the city council.
Out of eight cabinet members, discounting Clancy and deputy leader Ian Ward, four were sacked.
And two of those to lose their well-paid jobs very publicly voted FOR Cllr Clancy in his epic leadership contest against Sir Albert which ended last November.
Talk about a viper’s nest. Tahir Ali, a councillor for Nechells, who held the cabinet development and transport brief, became one of the first prominent Birmingham Asian politicians to back Cllr Clancy for the leadership last October happily posing for a photograph with his new pal, but that couldn’t save his skin after he crossed the new council leader.
Cllr Clancy made it clear that his deputy, Ian Ward, had his full support even though he was so closely associated with the Bore years. Cllr Ali took exception to this and decided to challenge Cllr Ward for the deputy Labour group leadership. Ali was easily beaten by Ward and, hey presto, found himself out of the cabinet two days later.
The case of Shafique Shah is more complicated. He allied himself to Clancy a year before Sir Albert was finally deposed. But in the dying days of the Bore administration, following a couple of cabinet resignations, Shah was offered and accepted a cabinet post, triggering alarm bells in the Clancy camp.
Then, when Cllr Clancy announced his leadership bid in October 2015 Cllr Shah joined with Cllr Ali in backing him against Sir Albert. The switching of sides didn’t do Cllr Shah any good at all. Cllr Clancy sacked him from the cabinet.
There were two other sackings. John Cotton, a long time Bore loyalist must have seen the writing on the wall and could not have been surprised to get the elbow.
Penny Hobrook, who lost out to Cllr Clancy by one vote in last November’s Labour leadership election, might also have anticipated being fired, but the circumstances surrounding her departure were somewhat unusual.
She was offered the ‘green and clean streets’ portfolio by the leader, but rejected the proposition, reportedly on the grounds that the post was already held by her close friend Lisa Trickett and she did not want to be responsible for her demise. Clancy refused to offer Cllr Holbrook another portfolio, sacked her and kept Cllr Trickett in the cabinet.
This reshuffle is probably the sign of things to come. Supporters of Sir Albert Bore spent the past four or five years rubbishing Clancy, sometimes presenting him as dangerous and unpredictable, certainly unfit to lead the council. It is now payback time in Birmingham’s political rough house.
Privately, Cllr Clancy has made it clear to friends that he might have replaced all eight cabinet members, but feared that would lead to open warfare in the Labour group. He promoted his two closest political allies to the cabinet – Waseem Zaffar and Majid Mahmood – and a further shake-up of the top team is likely this time next year, or perhaps even sooner.
Meanwhile, the clock is ticking towards May 2017 when the Labour group will hold its next AGM, where the possibility of challenges to Cllr Clancy and Cllr Ward cannot be discounted.
What should also not be discounted is the reaction of the Birmingham Independent Improvement Panel to instability if there is to be months of leadership speculation. The Government-appointed panel, responsible for ensuring the council delivers the Kerslake Review culture change, may not react kindly if it thinks internal Labour politics are hampering the reform process.
All eyes will be on Penny Holbrook, now on the backbenches, who so narrowly lost to Clancy in last year’s Labour leadership election, although there must be a question as to whether she is prepared to face the stress of another contest having entered last year’s race after admitting to friends that she wasn’t really cut out to be council leader.
Councillor Clancy believes his position as leader is reasonably safe, and he will benefit from the arrival at this month’s election of new councillors who are in his camp. There will, however, be uncertainties about the continuing loyalty of Asian councillors who backed Clancy last year and some calculations over the number of supporters Tahir Ali and Shafique Shah can muster will be necessary.
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