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Keeping up with the Jones

Keeping up with the Jones

🕔01.Oct 2018

Andy Street helped to open the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham yesterday afternoon, but was somewhat overshadowed by that other Brummie businessperson-turned-politician, Digby, Lord Jones of Birmingham, writes Kevin Johnson.

‘Diggers’ appeared centre stage at Symphony Hall after Conservative Party chairman, Brandon Lewis, made a confident, no lectern speech that gave a slight reminder of David Cameron’s 2005 Party Conference performance which led to him securing the leadership.

Who knows, there might be another vacancy soon…

For a man who likes to remind everyone he was not a Labour Party member even though he served in Gordon Brown’s administration and took the Labour whip, Lord Jones seemed very much at home whipping up a Tory crowd in his own backyard.

On Brexit and the danger of a Jeremy Corbyn government, he had the Sunday Symphony Hall audience loving his tune.

His swipe at Boris Johnson – “irrelevant and offensive” – received a mix response, but caught the ears of sketch and headline writers.

His enthusiastic support for the Chequers Plan and the PM, particularly her reaction to Salzburg, was full-throated.

If only Lord Jones had the opportunity to promote his views in Parliament. Oh, hang on…

Mr Street was welcomed near to the spot where a conductor is usually to be found in Birmingham’s first class concert hall.

Mr Street announced that Transport Secretary Chris Grayling had made the West Midlands the UK’s first Future Mobility Area, with £20M attached.

Earlier in the day, Mr Grayling and the Mayor had “overseen” the start of HS2 construction work near the Curzon Street station site.

The two also appeared together just days before in Moseley for the unveiling of station designs for three calling points on the proposed re-opening of the Camp Hill line.

Transport – and HS2 in particular – are at the centre of Mr Street’s Mayoralty. He has used several speaking opportunities recently to appeal to business and other audiences to underline the importance of HS2.

In his speech to Conference, he said:

We need to stand strong for what is in the whole nation’s interest.

It would seem Mr Street is taking the threat of a Boris Johnson premiership seriously given the defence of HS2 appears to result from remarks on the mega project from the former Foreign Secretary.

But is the apparent threat to HS2 worth the scale of response from the Mayor and from several Cabinet ministers at this party conference? Does it not give the supposed threat more prominence than it’s worth?

Like Lord Jones, the West Midlands Mayor was supportive of the Prime Minister and the Chequers Plan.

In his speech, he suggested that the West Midlands’ historical prowess in manufacturing and technology for military weapons could come in useful for Brexit negotiations with Macron & Merkel. Tory conferences always enjoy fighting talk when it comes to the EU – never more so than now.

He didn’t use the opportunity to tackle Brexit Secretary Dominic Rabb who has suggested that “businesses that aren’t doing so well…blame Brexit” after John Lewis chairman, Charlie Mayfield, had been on the Today programme explaining a big drop in half year profits at the co-operative.

Neither did Mr Street use his speech to rebuke senior Tory backbencher Sir Bernard Jenkin who suggested JLR boss Ralf Speth had been “scaremongering” about the consequences of a ‘no deal’ Brexit.

Given one firm is the Mayor’s former employer and the other perhaps the single most important employer in the region, Mr Street could be forgiven if he was riled by some of his Conservative colleagues.

There was reference to the Tory Mayors club, including London prospect Shaun Bailey, but no mention of working with Labour leaders. That is perhaps understandable in this most party pro of political environments, but given issues with cross party working – not least in the integration of PCC powers into the Mayoralty – he may have found a form of words around the need to operate in coalition with moderate Labour politicians.

Mr Street referenced the Prime Minister having her own seat at the Sedgley Conservative Club, but omitted the fact that Labour had taken back control of Dudley Council last week.

Mr Street shared his winning formula with the Conservative faithful. A focus on key sectors, digital as the golden thread, Commonwealth and Culture success with the hope of Channel 4 to follow.

As usual, he was careful to highlight continuing challenges such as the skills gap, youth unemployment and rough sleeping.

Half way through his term, Mr Street is in danger of becoming victim to his own skills and successes.

Suggestions have been made, including by some working closely with the Mayor, that a refreshed story is needed.

Recent events, such as the Forum for Growth, attracted the description “flat” from several attendees. As more than one WMCA insider remarked in Liverpool last week, where the Mayor was not personally present, the Combined Authority can’t return to the Party Conference circuit with the same message.

Go back two or more years and there was no single individual with responsibility – or ability – to tell the West Midlands story on public stages. There would be few who would say that Mr Street has not been highly effective in shaping and sharing a coherent story.

It is more debatable as to what degree a Mayor of 18 months with no fiscal devolution or significant economic powers is responsible for the economic growth, new jobs or business start up figures that populate the presentation charts.

Work on cultural and Commonwealth bids and the Metro extension were long in progress under Labour councils, although there are not many who would deny Mr Street had some impact on pushing them through the winning line.

So, is phase 1 perhaps complete? What’s the next phase of the story?

Surely it can’t all be bids and deals?

‘Inclusive growth’ is the term which trips off many a WMCA tongue.

As one chief executive in the WMCA orbit remarked to Chamberlain Files, there is a limit as to how many policy powerpoint presentations you can stomach. At some point, there has to be a deliverable plan with tangible actions and outcomes.

There is an undeniable case for inclusive growth – connecting cranes to communities in WMCA parlance – but the ‘what’ and ‘how’ are harder to come by.

When Mr Street seeks another term in 2020, voters will assess what difference the Mayor and WMCA have made. With few powers, a short term and a cross party WMCA, delivering real change to people’s lives was always going to be challenging.

There is a lot for new WMCA communications director, Simon Wren, to think about as he prepares to help the Mayor shape the next phase of the story.

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