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Shades of Lady Thatcher as Sir Albert vows to go on and on…

Shades of Lady Thatcher as Sir Albert vows to go on and on…

🕔12.Feb 2015

Fast approaching his 70th birthday with 34 years of public service behind him and a new, younger, wife to enjoy life with, you might suppose that Sir Albert Bore is looking forward to taking things easier. Not a bit of it. The leader of Birmingham city council isn’t even thinking about standing down, he tells Paul Dale.

There will be no all-inclusive Saga holidays to Benidorm for Sir Albert and Lady Bore, aka Cllr Victoria Quinn, or even a leisurely cruise down the Rhine to usher in the golden age of retirement.

Sir Albert, to borrow a defiant phrase from Lady Thatcher, intends to go on and on.

He is almost three years into his second stint as Birmingham city council leader, the first was from 1999 to 2004. He has been reappointed to the European Committee of the Regions, a job that involves regular trips throughout the EU, and is a key member of the Core Cities cabinet consisting of the leaders of Britain’s major councils.

In May he will face the traditional annual challenge to his leadership of the Labour group of city councillors, and therefore also his position as leader of the council, from backbench rival John Clancy. But Sir Albert has been here so many times since he became Labour leader in 1999, always confounding his opponents, always managing to retain the confidence of colleagues, that predictably he is not concerning himself with this year’s outcome.

To quote Queen Victoria: “We are not interested in the possibilities of defeat. They do not exist.”

He doesn’t want to talk about the “internal politics of the Labour group”, but is keen to stress that he remains as committed as ever to the council cause and claims not even to have thought about an exit strategy.

I find what I am doing still interesting. I have great enthusiasm for the job and while there will come a time in the future when I look for the door that time is not yet here.

The utter self-confidence of Sir Albert Bore is the stuff of legends.

Here is a man who, on the face of it, never doubts his own abilities and if there ever was a glimmer of doubt certainly wouldn’t show it. Once, after a particularly close leadership challenge which saw Albert win by just one vote, I asked him for a comment and he replied with a straight face that he was very pleased the Labour group had reconfirmed its confidence in him. Now, that’s chutzpah.

But this year and this leadership challenge will be played out against a uniquely difficult backdrop for Sir Albert and the city council. The Bore ship of state is sailing in uncharted waters and the sharks are circling.

The past 18 months have been wretched for Birmingham. Scarcely a month appears to have passed without Government intervention of one sort or another – a report by Professor Julian Le Grand exposed the continuing failure of children’s social services, while the Trojan Horse scandal resulted in witheringly critical reports of the council’s many failings by Peter Clarke and Ian Kershaw.

Investigations into Trojan Horse exposed serious weaknesses at the very heart of the council’s corporate life and led to a governance review by Sir Bob Kerslake, Permanent Secretary at the Department for Communities and Local Government.

It is not necessary here to delve deeply into the Kerslake Review. The main headlines will suffice:

“Poor leadership, no positive vision for Birmingham, devolution that is not working and cannot work, a damaging combination of an absence of a strategic plan and the lack of a corporate grip, councillors acting as if they are officers and officers acting as if they are councillors” and perhaps the most damning Kerslake finding of all, “organisational disobedience by officers.”

I could go on, but it is clear Sir Bob found that Birmingham city council is a dysfunctional and in many ways uncontrollable body and has been for years. As Kerslake notes, successive administrations have failed to deal with deep rooted problems, opting to sweep difficult issues under the carpet instead.

Sir Albert’s default position to such criticism – well, we know all that and are addressing the issues – hasn’t worked on this occasion. Gradually, bit by bit, the Whitehall machine is steering Birmingham city council, rather than Sir Albert and his cabinet.

Clearly the events of the past 18 months or so do not put Sir Albert in a great position.

Since Labour regained control in 2012 Birmingham has become the subject of increasing Government intervention because the council is not performing adequately. There are now two commissioners to oversee children’s services and schools as well as an independent improvement board to take charge of an implementation plan to bring the council up to scratch.

Birmingham has been given until the end of the year by Communities Secretary Eric Pickles to improve. If sufficient progress is not apparent, further intervention may be necessary.

Kerslake’s review laid bare a failure of leadership – both politically and from the officer corps. Sir Albert, who has been either council leader or leader of the opposition for almost 16 years, is therefore severely criticised by implication.

Asked whether he accepts Kershaw’s criticism, Sir Albert won’t say yes and he won’t say no, but insists he is not being evasive. It is a typically Albert-like answer from a man who has always found it difficult to say mea culpa.

His response to Kerslake, insisting that the improvement plan is a matter for him and chief executive Mark Rogers to devise, is certainly taking a high-risk approach and has infuriated many Labour backbenchers (as well as Tory and Lib Dem councillors) who now realise that the first they will see of the plan is the finished product after it has been signed off by the improvement panel and DCLG.

Kerslake said it was important for the whole council to own the improvement plan. All councillors may eventually own the plan, if they wish, but they certainly won’t get to write it.

It is almost as if Sir Albert is relishing picking a fight with his group. Presumably he feels his position in relation to the Clancy challenge is strong enough to see him through, but you do wonder whether this is the right time to be making new enemies. Even some of the most loyal Bore foot-soldiers are openly questioning his Kershaw tactics.

In the days following publication, Sir Albert surprised colleagues by stating that since he had commissioned Sir Bob’s report it was a matter for him to decide the appropriate response.

To suggest that the Kerslake Review was commissioned by Sir Albert Bore, as if the council leader arrived in his office one day last year and thought ‘wouldn’t it be a good idea to get Bob Kerslake to conduct a review of our governance capabilities?’ is fanciful. Surely Eric Pickles ordered the Kerslake Review and asked Sir Albert to join him in jointly commissioning the work?

Meanwhile, Sir Albert’s relations with Birmingham’s Labour MPs, which have often been rocky in the past, appear to be going through a difficult stage. Charging £35 a year to households for garden waste collection might appear small fry against the council’s myriad issues, but public opposition to the so-called garden tax has left the MPs fearing for votes at the General Election.

Sir Albert has refused to compromise. The MPs, led by Northfield’s Richard Burden, have launched a pretty much unprecedented attack on the council’s Labour administration.

And in the House of Commons the convention that MPs do not criticise the council on their own patch appears to have gone out of the window.

Gisela Stuart, the Labour MP for Edgbaston, did not hold back earlier this week:

I am also going to be frank now. Not all is well in Birmingham. We must acknowledge that.

There have been some deep systemic structural failures in that city going back over several administrations. We have had three major reviews—Kerslake, Warner and Tomlinson. They have shown us a way forward. The city must grasp that and say, this is our chance to come to terms with some of the problems of the past and put them right.

Will Sir Albert once again see off a leadership challenge and continue for a few more years as Birmingham’s pre-eminent local politician? Or has the master tactician finally succumbed to hubris?

Enoch Powell’s famous dictum about all political careers ending in failure unless they are cut off mid-stream may be around the corner. Or perhaps not. Rumours of Sir Albert’s demise have been much exaggerated in the past, but the next few weeks will be a crucial period for the Great Survivor.

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