Birmingham City Council leader Mike Whitby has emerged as a front-running Conservative candidate to become the city’s first directly elected mayor after receiving a ringing endorsement from Government minister for cities Greg Clark.
Mr Clark was at the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce and Industry with Lords Heseltine and Adonis to launch the run in to the mayoral referendum.
He confirmed that there will be referendums in 11 UK cities on May 3 and those that vote ‘yes’ will hold mayoral elections alongside police commissioner elections on November 15, dubbed Super Thursday.
But, with the three Labour politicians hoping to secure the top job, former council leader Sir Albert Bore, Edgbaston MP Gisela Stuart and former Erdington MP Sion Simon all in the audience, there was much talk of who might run for the Tories.
Mr Clark was clear in his backing when he told the chamber: “Mike Whitby has done an excellent job as council leader, but he could do an even better one as elected mayor of Birmingham.”
The chamber gave a ringing endorsement to the plan, and, with the referendum only three months away, the thoughts of those present is the debate must now shift to the wider population – those 700,000 voters who will decide whether Birmingham takes up the elected mayor.
Mr Clark said that Birmingham’s great Victorian mayor Joseph Chamberlain showed what could be achieved with strong leadership.
“In three years he parked, paved, assized, marketed, supplied gas and water and improved the city of Birmingham. But his legacy was much more than physical. He set an example of what good local government can achieve.
“Elected mayors provide cities with the strong, visible leadership that can help them prosper nationally and internationally. This is an opportunity for each city to transform itself for the better.
“The world’s great cities have mayors who lead for their city on the national and international stage, attracting investment and jobs. We believe that mayors can help English cities achieve their full potential too.”
He added that a range of powers will already be passed to Birmingham from Whitehall, such as those around development, transport, skills and apprenticeships, Homes and Communities Agency assets and capital spending budgets. But he added that more powers would be negotiated with any mayor after an election rather than before the referendum.
Councillor Whitby, who has led the city council for almost eight years, has for much of that time been vehemently opposed to elected mayors.
He helped bankroll the successful ‘no’ campaign for the 2001 consultative referendum and took a hard line against a mayoral referendum petition in 2007.
Since 2010, when the new Coalition Government first announced its preference for elected mayors his opposition has cooled and he has remained quiet on the issue, leading to speculation over his intentions.
And on Wednesday he had the ready-made excuse of a West Midlands Joint Committee meeting to avoid any awkward questions at the Chamber debate.
Now several Birmingham Conservatives suggest the prospect of an “I Like Mike” campaign is becoming increasingly likely should the people vote yes. The Tories have intimated that they will only chose a candidate after a referendum.