Iron Angle: Former Lord Mayors in revolt against Mike Whitby
It’s taken three years for rebellion to foment, but members of the most-prestigious-and-difficult-to-enter club in Birmingham have finally had enough.
Former Lord Mayors are in open revolt against what they see as blatant aggrandisement by Tory council leader Mike Whitby, whose presidential style makes Barack Obama look meek and mild.
A cross-party delegation of former Lord Mayors is to head an inquiry into what they see as the downgrading of the 114-year-old office – both in terms of power and budgets for the first citizen.
And before anyone suggests otherwise, this is not an anti-Tory rebellion by the usual Labour malcontents.
The selection of the review team is a stunning masterclass in open warfare. Step forward the council’s top-line Awkward Squad – Mick Wilkes, Mick Sharpe, Randal Brew and the most awkward of them all, John Alden, who will chair the probe.
It is, you might say, the revenge of the chain gang. Those who have worn the ermine and ancient robes always stick together. It is a little like the Freemasons, only even more secretive.
Quite how “don’t rock the boat” scrutiny chief, Coun Alistair Dow, agreed to allow the fuse on particular ticking time bomb to be lit is something of a mystery, although he probably had his arm twisted by fellow Lib Dem councillor Paul Tilsley, deputy council leader and a former Lord Mayor, who has let it be known that he, too, is concerned about the future of the mayoralty.
Tilsley let slip a cryptic message in his annual address to the council, in which he vowed to do everything possible to preserve the dignity of the mayoralty.
The countdown to where we are now began in May 2007 when Whitby forced through a change to the council constitution, stating that the Lord Mayor must not be “seen to be taking a lead or civic role in matters that are in the lawful domain of the leader of the council or any other cabinet member’s portfolio”.
This may seem arcane to non-local government people, but the impact of the change was actually quite dramatic.
Before the constitution was altered, the Lord Mayor took precedence at any function he or she attended in Birmingham, unless a member of the royal family was present.
The catch-all nature of the new clause enabled Coun Whitby to muscle in and out-trump the Lord Mayor at almost any occasion upon which important people in his eyes – ie: Government ministers, top Tories, stars of showbiz, Premier League footballers, Olympic athletes – attend events in Birmingham.
Indeed, the promotion of M Whitby as a Birmingham brand, possibly THE Birmingham brand, has always appeared to be of the utmost importance to the council leader from the day he took office in June 2004.
The city’s communications strategy, if indeed there is such a thing, seems to rest largely on finding ways to “get the council leader in on this”, particularly when Government announcements are pending.
Matters reached crisis point as result of the council’s financial difficulties, with all departments including the Lord Mayor’s parlour, ordered to make cuts.
I hear that a suggested £100,000 reduction in the mayoral allowance was rejected out of hand by the infamous PEP group – the Performance, Efficiency and Productivity star chamber.
PEP chairman Len Gregory is said by one person present at the meeting to have considered the proposal for all of about five seconds, before ruling it out.
Coun Gregory, whose bone-dry Tory instinct is normally to cut and cut again, will become Lord Mayor this May. This could possibly, you may think, have something to do with his sudden aversion to cutting spending.
The mayoral revolt will also focus attention on the huge real-terms reduction in budgets for the first citizen that have taken place over the past 20 years, under all political parties.
When Conservative Lord Mayor Bernard Zissman took office in 1990, he had a £500,000 hospitality budget. Today’s Lord Mayor has to make do with less than half of that.
This is all a little embarrassing for Whitby, whose great hero Joseph Chamberlain was Birmingham’s best known mayor, although in 1873-75 the office was more akin to what we today would know as the leader of the council.
Whitby’s solution is of course quite simple.
If he wants to combine the civic splendour of the mayoralty with the power of being council leader, he should run for elected mayor of Birmingham when David Cameron fires the starting pistol after the next General Election.