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Birmingham on Thames: Canapes aplenty, but clarity in short supply from the Leader

Birmingham on Thames: Canapes aplenty, but clarity in short supply from the Leader

🕔23.Feb 2012

As parliamentary receptions go, this was a good one. As someone who’s organised a few, including one which saw an MP sponsor proceed to rip into his then employer’s decisions causing near fatal career consequences at the hands of the chairman, I know the difference between success and failure. This was a good result.

What are the metrics of these occasions? After all, plying politicians, journos, business folk and assorted hangers on (including me) with booze is not cheap.

There was a good turnout. Plenty of MPs, one or two Cabinet ministers, sprinklings of Brum glitterati, some Westminster journos and various others.

As importantly, there was a good vibe. Intangible, but I think common consent has it there was plenty of goodwill in the room.

Canapés flowed nicely. Wine and beer was a little thinner on the ground, unless you went hunting for it. Trivial perhaps, but it matters. Politicos are not a bunch to keep dry.

Branding and messages were in place. The Terrace Pavilion of the House of Commons is a long and thin room, so difficult to cover, whilst access time is severely limited. But location (ie. access to MPs) trumps any branding and technical considerations on venue choice.

Now the important test: the messages.

Jerry Blackett (CEO, Birmingham Chamber Group) kicked off. As ever, Jerry was positive, engaging and uplifting. He worked hard to grab the audience and warm them up for the main acts. A story about his wife’s choice of tiles and those found in the Palace of Westminster bathrooms is still hanging in the air, but he captured the crowd.

He also did the Airport’s bidding. Fresh from last week’s briefing at BHX, he was pushing the ‘breathing space’ message. Paul Kehoe and John Morris will have thought the trip worthwhile.

Andrew Mitchell followed. The Secretary of State for International Development and Conservative MP for Sutton Coldfield did well to tread the difficult line between backing party colleague Whitby and speak on behalf of all Birmingham MPs to champion the city and the night’s global connectivity message.

Then the principal artist. The man we had all come to see…

You can say many things about Councillor Mike Whitby. But you can’t accuse him of lacking energy or passion. His commitment to the city and in particular its investment and export agenda are without question. If you want passion from your politician, Mike is your man.

What Mike actually said and what it added up to passed me by. Sovereign Funds, China, Dubai, investment, growth and lots more. All the buzzwords were there.

There was talk of a compelling narrative; clarity of messages. But the actual messages and story missed their target by some distance. Unfortunately, when Mike gets excited any semblance of focus and brevity are gone. He’s not a man comfortable with a script. After eight years in office, one might have hoped he would have learned a few more tricks and some discipline.

Mike has the support of talented professionals, both in his office and the wider Council at large as well as agencies like Marketing/Business Birmingham. They are telling him all the right things to say. The arguments are well fashioned. But, in the end, bullets need to be fired. In the right direction, at the right time.

To be fair, all the speeches were heard respectfully. Mike raised one or two laughs and cheers. To borrow from Simon Cowell, he actually possesses ‘like-ability’ and there was a sense of warmth toward him. But as someone fascinated by the arts of speechwriting and speech giving, even I tuned out of his words half way through. Mike has often reminded me of Lord Prescott with his command of language and a mouth working faster than his brain. Having heard Prezza’s Desert Island Discs the other day, perhaps Whitby also suffers from an inferiority complex that appears baffling in men who have reached such high office.

It would be easy to say a directly elected mayor would fix all this. It might, but it might not. Which brings me to the mayoral question. Elsewhere on this blog, we had suggested that the event tagged on twitter as #globality might have been the unofficial launchpad for Leader Whitby’s tilt at the Mayoralty. There was no sign of that. More to the point, the Leader’s address in front of Secretary Pickles, Transport boss Greening and Cities Minister Clark probably set back his campaign.

So, a good turnout, a very positive vibe and lots of goodwill for Birmingham: Global City, Local Heart (whatever that is). But the message lacked clarity and punch.

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