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West Midlands metro mayor: a Streetwise guide to who’s in the frame

West Midlands metro mayor: a Streetwise guide to who’s in the frame

🕔07.Jul 2015

The worst kept secret in politics is that a West Midlands combined authority will be run by a directly elected metro mayor. This may happen when the new body begins work in April 2016, or a couple of years later, but it will happen because the Government is insisting maximum devolution can only go to city regions led by mayors.

The alternative, therefore, is that an irrational fear of a mayoral election leads the region’s councils, both Labour and Conservative, to reject localism and devolution. My view is that won’t happen.

Here in the West Midlands, where politicians claim there is huge public opposition to mayors, council leaders are reluctant even to talk about the subject, still less to comment on how an apparent ingrained suspicion of mayoral matters might be overcome.

But deep down they realise the game is over. I asked the seven West Midlands metropolitan council leaders at the combined authority launch whether they expected George Osborne to change his mind about insisting on mayors for maximum devolution, or whether they would be forced to change their minds.

Unsurprisingly, the question wasn’t answered. Sandwell council leader Darren Cooper, a key figure in kicking his colleagues into line and getting a combined authority up and running, said a mayor hadn’t been ruled in or out.

Over the next few months as Government devolution deals become clear to regions prepared to have a mayor – Cornwall is the latest tipped to get Greater Manchester-style devolved powers – the pressure will mount on the West Midlands to fall into line.

And when that happens candidates for metro mayor of the West Midlands, the biggest job outside of mayor of London, will emerge. Some, of course, are already secretly planning campaigns or taking ‘soundings’ from colleagues about standing.

To say this is a big job is something of an understatement.

A West Midlands combined authority could have an economic output getting on for £100 billion a year, the size of a small country. Salaries for mayors are yet to be worked out, but the Government has said pay must reflect the scale of the role, so it is easy to imagine a West Midlands mayor picking up £150,000 a year – comfortably more than an MP or junior minister.

One interesting aspect of the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill currently going through Parliament is that a metro mayor candidate cannot also be a member of one of the combined authority councils. So if any West Midlands council leader or councillor wishes to stand for mayor, he or she must resign as a councillor first of all.

The good news for ambitious councillors however is that the mayor has the right to appoint a deputy, and the deputy mayor must be chosen from one of the combined authority council leaders.

Who, then, might be in the running for mayor? Here are just a few names. There will of course be other runners and riders emerging over the coming months:

Andy Street (Con)

Managing director of John Lewis, chair of the Greater Birmingham and Solihull LEP, lifelong Tory and former President of the Oxford University Conservative Association, if Street indicated he wanted to stand for mayor you would think the Government would bite his hand off.

Chamberlain Files has it on good authority that Mr Street is indeed toying with the idea. “He certainly has not ruled it out”, a friend admitted.

With his background in business and the success he has made of GBSLEP, Street would be a serious contender and could be the type of Tory able to appeal to voters in the West Midlands industrial, and generally Labour, heartlands. Born in 1963, Street has West Midlands connections having attended King Edward’s School, Birmingham.

David Jamieson (Lab)

The West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner is one of only two serious contenders to have expressed an interest in becoming metro mayor (see also Digby Jones below). Jamieson believes combining the mayoral position with  that of PCC is a natural progression, and the Government has supported this approach in the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill.

He will have been encouraged by events in Greater Manchester where PCC Tony Lloyd has been appointed interim metro mayor pending a formal election in 2017.

Mr Jamieson could be a shoo-in for a Labour interim mayor, but would he get his party’s nomination for candidate at a subsequent election? He would be up against some heavyweight contenders.

Liam Byrne (Lab)

The MP for Birmingham Hodge Hill has plenty of Government experience. He was Chief Secretary to the Treasury under Gordon Brown, famously leaving an ‘all the money is gone’ note to his successor. He’s also been a police and immigration minister.

Byrne has a reputation as a Labour moderniser and policy wonk, although his robust views on controlling immigration and support for New Labour haven’t always gone down well with colleagues. He is also a former Minister for the West Midlands, which could be seen as valuable experience for the metro mayor job. Last year he published a paper setting out proposals for metro mayor powers, and in the past has expressed an interest in running for mayor of Birmingham.

Now shadow minister for universities, science and skills, Byrne may feel his Westminster career has run its course and wish to seek new exciting challenges, namely running the West Midlands.

Sion Simon (Lab)

It’s difficult to imagine that Simon wouldn’t have a crack at becoming metro mayor. He sacrificed his ministerial career by resigning as MP for Erdington in 2010 in order to campaign to become the first elected mayor of Birmingham. That didn’t work out after electors voted against having a mayor in a referendum in 2012.

Mr Simon has since become a West Midlands MEP and retains all of the right connections to run for metro mayor if he so wished, not least a long friendship with Tom Watson, odds-on favourite to be the next deputy Labour leader.

Caroline Spelman (Con)

A former Environment Secretary and Tory party chairman, Spelman has been MP for Meriden since 1997. Now on the backbenches, Spelman may conclude that fresh challenges are required.

She would be seen by many Tories as a safe pair of hands and “unlikely to frighten the horses”, but does Spelman remain ambitious enough to campaign to become her party’s West Midlands metro mayor candidate?

Sajid Javid (Con)

The Business Secretary and MP for Bromsgrove looks set for a long and high-flying parliamentary career. However, if his ambition to become Tory party leader is dashed, he might be tempted to look elsewhere. He has recently begun to take great interest in the West Midlands having declared himself unofficial minister for the Midland Engine, which is the combined authority’s version of Northern Powerhouse.

Possibly a very serious contender for the Conservative mayoral nomination, but only if the combined authority stretches to take in rural parts of Warwickshire, Worcestershire and Staffordshire giving him a far better chance of being elected.

Sir Albert Bore (Lab)

The veteran leader of Birmingham city council is a long-time supporter of elected mayors. He also knows as much about the political machinations of the West Midlands as anyone.

He is 70 this year, but friends say his ambitions remain undiminished. Albert never made it to Parliament, although he is a big name on the European Committee of the Regions. He would have to resign from the city council if he wanted to run for metro mayor, and that might ironically suit some of his Labour colleagues by ushering in a new broom at the country’s largest, and troubled, council.

Darren Cooper (Lab)

The leader of Sandwell council has been powerful behind the scenes in cajoling his fellow West Midlands council leaders into getting a combined authority off the ground. Cooper forced the hands of Birmingham and Solihull, threatening to look to Staffordshire and Telford form a combined authority if progress could not be made.

As with Sir Albert Bore, Cooper would have to resign from Sandwell council to run for mayor. He may conclude it would be preferable to remain at the head of his Black Country empire, and perhaps become deputy metro mayor instead.

Lord Digby Jones (Ind)

The former CBI leader who lives in Warwickshire announced last month that he would be interested in becoming the West Midlands mayor. He told the BBC: “It’s high time that somebody, an advocate, really pushed it and you have got to have clout. You have to fight down in Westminster and Whitehall with these guys, everybody else.”

Jones’ time as a trade minister under Gordon Brown’s “Government of all the talents” was short-lived and not particularly successful. He cropped up during the 2015 General Election writing an open letter to Ed Miliband telling the Labour leader to “stop sneering at wealth creators”.

Outspoken, flamboyant, a colourful character in a monochrome political world, Digby might just be the type of independent candidate to generate a substantial following.

Khalid Mahmood (Lab)

Would Labour ever select a BME candidate to run for West Midlands mayor? Mahmood, MP for Perry Barr since 2001, might fancy a crack at the job. He has been an outspoken critic of Birmingham city council’s poor governance and often emerges as a national spokesperson in Parliament on Muslim matters.

Salma Yaqoob (Ind)

A former leader and vice-chair of the Respect party and a Birmingham city councillor from 2006 to 2011, Yaqoob has often been mentioned as a candidate for high office, but her career appears to have stalled. She came close to defeating Labour’s Roger Godsfiff in Hall Green at the 2010 General Election, but has since quit Respect. Although many Muslims would like her to seek public office again, there is little sign that she intends to do so.

John Hemming (Lib Dem)

Liberal Democrats aren’t thick on the ground in the West Midlands. Hemming, former MP for Birmingham Yardley who lost his seat at the General Election, is a highly successful businessman with no pressing need to pursue another political career.

But if his party is looking for a West Midlands mayoral candidate, Hemming could be the man.

He is a former deputy leader of Birmingham city council, and made a name for himself in Parliament campaigning against “secret” family courts. His interesting personal life – he once entered a love rat of the year contest – hasn’t harmed his career so far.

Lord Mike Whitby (Con)

We are into rank outsider territory here, but the former Birmingham city council leader has never been less than ambitious and might regard himself as a metro mayor contender. Whether party leaders would see it the same way is doubtful. Whitby’s 18 month spell at the House of Lords has been blemished by claims from the whips about poor attendance.

Mike Olley (Lab)

Level with Whitby in the rank outsider’s stable, but the former Birmingham city councillor currently manager of the Southside Business improvement District retains close links to the Tom Watson wing of the Labour party and might fancy his chances.

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