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‘Tears at the cabinet’ as time finally ran out for Sir Albert Bore

‘Tears at the cabinet’ as time finally ran out for Sir Albert Bore

🕔14.Oct 2015

Some members of Sir Albert Bore’s cabinet reportedly wept openly as the leader of Birmingham city council fell on his sword, bringing to an end the political career of a man who had been a giant in local government before some of them were even born, writes Paul Dale.

Albert, like an ageing heavyweight boxer in his last fight, trapped in the corner as blows reigned down from all sides, no doubt did his best to survive, pleading for a little more time to turn the council around.

He had, after all, been in just such a tight spot many times before and always emerged unscathed to fight another day. Not on this occasion.

With two high profile resignations in seven days, the majority of his cabinet against him, the significant failure of deputy leader Ian Ward to publicly back Sir Albert, the threat of a rebellion by backbench Labour councillors, concerns expressed privately by MPs, the fact that the ‘Birmingham situation’ made it to the agenda of Labour’s shadow cabinet – all of these things conspired to make it clear that the Great Survivor finally had run out of time.

Agreement was reached early on Monday afternoon that Sir Albert should stand down, a few hours after Cllr Ward returned from holiday, having promised to “make a few comments” about events in Birmingham which had greatly concerned him.

Confirmation that Sir Albert would go in December did not come until tea time. The delay gave all of the main players the time to pore over an official statement that would be released, couched in terms that gave the impression Sir Albert had voluntarily decided to call it a day.

The tears began to flow. Labour is a sentimental party that does not always handle dismissals very well, and it must have been hard to dispense with the services of someone who has been a key figure at the top of the council for 30 years or more and has done more than anyone else to deliver the economic and retail renaissance enjoyed by the city centre today.

The saccharine-coated messages of appreciation for Albert are flooding in. Sadly, some are from those that were determined to remove him.

Politics is a messy business, a rough trade as John Major remarked. Possibly some cabinet members had Wilde in their minds when they pressed the trigger:

‘Each man kills the thing he loves, Some do it with a bitter look,
‘Some with a flattering word,
‘The coward does it with a kiss,
‘The brave man with a sword!’

The truth is that Albert’s days were numbered from the moment the highly critical Kerslake Review was published last December, exposing as it did years of under-performance at Birmingham city council and poor leadership.

Many thousands of words have been written about Kerslake and now is not the time to go in any great detail into the report, suffice to say that it painted a picture of a council that thought it knew best when it did not and of an organisation with a default approach that generally involved kicking the can down the road rather than taking tough decisions.

Kerslake highlighted a culture where very senior councillors spent their time micro-managing even the most routine of decision making processes, interfered in matters that should have been the remit of officers, and took a high-handed attitude to partnership working.

Kerslake was clear, supported by Local Government Secretary Greg Clark, that the only way a slimmed down version of Birmingham city council could survive in an era of acute public spending cuts would be to undergo a radical culture change, moving from a ‘we know best’ attitude to working in harmony with other stakeholders and the voluntary sector.

The biggest question was obvious: could the political leaders of Birmingham who have been running the city for 20-odd years really change the habits of a lifetime? This question, of course, applies as much to senior Tory and Lib Dem councillors who ran the council between 2004 and 2012 as it does to Sir Albert, who was in charge from 1999 to 2004 and from 2012 to the present day.

The end for Albert was fuelled by a dawning realisation among Labour councillors that there is a real threat of direct Government intervention in running the city council if the Birmingham Independent Improvement Panel issues a second ‘must do better’ report to Mr Clark at the end of this month.

Rightly or wrongly, councillors believe that the Local Government Secretary is poised to act and that a change of leadership at the top of the council might, possibly, save Birmingham from governance by Whitehall-appointed commissioners.

As events began to close in on him, Sir Albert made some fatal mistakes.

  • He failed to share with backbenchers, and even with all of the cabinet, the draft West Midlands Combined Authority devolution deal, which had the effect of throwing fuel on longstanding complaints of failing to involve ordinary councillors in the running of Birmingham.
  • He gave a most unwise interview to the Birmingham Post in which he declared he would not stand down – “I’m not going anywhere” – and would have to be carried out of his office rather than resign voluntarily.
  • He did nothing for three days after the resignation from the cabinet of James McKay, and then surprisingly appointed Shafique Shah without, it is alleged, following Labour’s rule book by consulting the party executive. This led to the resignation of group secretary Valerie Seabright on the grounds that Sir Albert had made it impossible for her to do her job.

Cllr McKay’s resignation a week ago left Sir Albert visibly shocked. It had not been expected, and the blunt letter from McKay explaining his decision to quit came as a bolt out of the blue.

McKay wrote:

To meet the challenges facing the council, and the city, we need a simple, convincing political vision, one that can inspire citizens, get partners around the table, and be a clear map for how the Council itself needs to move forward.

This can’t be done by a Leader or Cabinet Members alone, despite the huge talent and dedication on offer. We’ve got to shift how we do things, starting with how the Executive works with the Labour Group, and the wider Council.

If we shut ourselves away, the city will change around us, regardless.A simple, convincing vision will unlock the enthusiasm of partners across the city, who right now are ready to step up, but want leadership from the politicians.

Who would have thought McKay would turn out to be the Geoffrey Howe of Birmingham, delivering a fatal blow to his leader? He may as well have written ‘Dear Sir Albert, you haven’t got a vision for Birmingham, you don’t understand partnership working, and you’ve got to go’.

Ironically, Sir Albert’s last days in office coincided with huge economic growth in Birmingham, with the completion of the New Street Station refurbishment, the Grand Central shopping centre, work beginning on the redevelopment of Paradise Circus, approval of the Snow Hill masterplan, the tram extension and the pending arrival of HS2.

It turned out, though, that the council leader who made his name as a leading proponent of economic development failed at the end of the day to convince enough Labour councillors that the great wealth and expansion of the city centre would help to turn around high unemployment and poverty in the inner city and suburban areas.

Even as he prepares to depart, Sir Albert continues to refer to the Snow Hill project as ‘Birmingham’s Canary Wharf’, a description that will play in to the hands of his Labour critics who say he spent too much time designing grand projects and not enough time spreading the wealth around.

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