The greatest politician ever to come out of Birmingham was Joe Chamberlain. He was the first self-made man to get to the top of British politics, becoming at the end of the 19th century the person who, in Winston Churchill’s phrase, “made the weather”.
Andy Street, Conservative candidate for Mayor of the West Midlands, is like Chamberlain a successful businessman – managing director from 2007-16 of John Lewis – who has entered politics from Birmingham.
Street, whose heroes include not only Chamberlain but Michael Heseltine, is convinced he can win the West Midlands for the Conservatives, and told ConservativeHome: “If we can win here it is a knife thrust in the Labour Party’s heart.”
The region stretches from Wolverhampton to Coventry, and as well as Birmingham, includes Sandwell, Dudley, Walsall and Solihull. Of the 38 parliamentary seats in this area, Labour took 31 in 2015 and the Conservatives only seven.
But Street points out that in that year the Conservatives gained 33 per cent of the vote compared to 41 per cent for Labour, which means a four per cent swing in the election to be held on 4 May would be sufficient for victory. He adds that the national polls currently show a swing of 3.5 per cent to the Conservatives.
In Street’s view, this election is “a test case” which will show whether Theresa May’s prospectus, set out last summer in Birmingham, of “an economy that works for everyone” is going to work. He believes that, like Chamberlain, he can use business methods to help many millions of people who feel they have missed out on rising prosperity.
Street dismissed Enoch Powell, for many years an MP in Wolverhampton, as “an utter irrelevance”, and said the Conservatives are today making headway among voters of immigrant descent who would once have been put off by Powell.
ConHome: “You were President in 1984 of Oxford University Conservative Association. Why then did you not seek early election to Parliament? We’ve got all these Oxford Tories running the show. Theresa May and Philip Hammond and Boris Johnson.”
Street: “And David Cameron. Yes, absolutely right. Why did I not do it? I suppose the truthful answer is I thought I’d better go and get some knowledge of business, if I’m honest.”
In 1985 he became a trainee with John Lewis at Brent Cross in London. And although he acted as the unpaid Tory agent in Brent East when Damian Green stood there in the 1992 general election, for many years he concentrated on rising to the top at John Lewis, which under his leadership enjoyed great success.
Street: “The honest answer is I wasn’t going to be prised out of my business career until this particular political job [West Midlands Mayor] came about. It’s this job I want to do because it is so significant for this region.”
ConHome: “And were there any individuals who particularly persuaded you to make this jump?”
Street: “I’d been thinking about it for some time, but the answer to your question is I only decided I would definitely do it after I saw the Prime Minister.”
ConHome: “Oh right! The present Prime Minister?”
Street: “The previous Prime Minister was keen that I do it, let me be clear about that. There was lots of gossip about whether I was going to do it all through the first half of last year.
“I knew I had to wait to see the Brexit result, and then when we got the result we did, I wanted to wait to see who took over. So when Theresa May was appointed, she asked to see me actually, and we had an extremely constructive meeting, where she said she would absolutely ensure the party supported this election, and it was on the back of that that I said I’d do it.”
ConHome: “Were you involved in the Brexit campaign?”
ConHome: “Did you take a public position on it? John Lewis didn’t warn of cataclysm if we were to leave or anything like that?”
Street: “John Lewis wrote to its employees suggesting – I still believe this, actually – that the John Lewis interest was for us to remain in the EU. But that was a business position, and I did not campaign on it as a politician at all. I wasn’t a politician, I was a business person at the time.
“So the position now quite clearly is that the electorate has spoken, I’m absolutely with the Prime Minister, my job now when elected is to ensure the West Midlands thrives after leaving the EU.”
ConHome: “You must be encouraged that she gave that speech in Birmingham on 11 July 2016, the morning that Andrea Leadsom stepped down.”
Street: “This is the whole point. I’m sitting waiting to decide whether I would put my name forward for this, when she came here. And the content of her speech, about an economy that works for everyone, that was the theme that motivated me to say yes, I’m going to go for this.
“And I say at every meeting now, I’ve said it many times, I’m very proud to stand under that particular Conservative banner. And the reason is, if you look at the economic geography, the city [of Birmingham] and Solihull are particularly buoyant at the moment in terms of economic growth.
“However, there are large parts of this region that have felt they have missed out on that growth. And let’s be clear, up until the 2010 election the relative performance of this place was very poor. We completely missed out on the Blair-Brown boom.
“So if you go to do focus groups, as we have, you will hear a lot about people who have missed out. So the mantra that you’ve got to have an economy that works for everyone, I actually call it a society that works for everyone, that is absolutely right here. Indeed I see this as a test case as to whether or not that mantra can be delivered.”
ConHome: “You’ve expressed admiration already for Theresa May, but who else are your political heroes?”
Street: “I wouldn’t be here, doing this job, if it wasn’t for Michael Heseltine.”
ConHome: “How did that come about?”
Street: “He is the architect of devolution. These mayoralties are the natural consequence of the work that Cameron commissioned from him five years ago.
“To quote Heseltine, he’s been giving the same speech for the last 40 years, and the only difference is that people now listen to it. And his speech basically goes: we’ve concentrated far too much power in London. We need to turn that back so that the people of the West Midlands have more responsibility over the things they can control.
“And by the way that’s not an anti-London feeling in any way. It’s all about complementarities. He started that work with central government about five years ago. It moved through various stages, the Local Enterprise Partnerships of course, I chaired the Local Enterprise Partnership here for Birmingham and Solihull, and then it led to the devolution deal that was done at the end of 2015, and it’s that devolution deal that brought about the mayoralty.
“So he is clearly a hero of that act, and he’s also a hero because of his views round industrial policy. As he said, ‘I’ll intervene before breakfast, before lunch, before tea and before dinner.’ So as a soulmate I’d be with Michael.”
ConHome: “Anyone else? What about Joe Chamberlain?”
Street: “Of course! But I thought you were talking about current politicians.”
ConHome: “No, no. Either dead or alive.”
Street: “Well the other person we should talk about is Joe Chamberlain. Why is he there on the wall? [Street pointed to the wall, on which the only politician to appear is Chamberlain.] He was a businessman, he could have continued in business, couldn’t he, but he decided to move into a political career, and made this city the best governed city in the world, in a relatively short amount of time, actually.
“And he was actually also very intolerant of mediocrity. But the really important thing is his whole purpose was to use not just his own, but collective business success to – his language, not mine – improve the lot of the masses. It’s exactly the same now. We will only address those people who feel they’ve missed out if we can drive a successful economy that everyone shares in the fruits of.”
ConHome: “Surely to get good people in local government, you need the devolution of taxation. The poll tax was a terrible disaster, but someone’s got to grasp that nettle eventually.”
Street: “One of the reasons I want to do this is I do believe that business disciplines, and the whole notion of urgency, holding people to account, being paid by results, all that stuff, has got a place.”
ConHome: “So as a local politician you’re not just wasting your time in talking shops.”
Street: “Exactly. And this is about driving out delivery. Having a plan, and making sure you deliver. My appeal to the electorate, and actually I know this is going down extremely well, is here is a chap who has run something of scale and has learnt the skills to run something.
“Now on this question of taxation, we’ve already got substantial budgets to manage, the disciplines of doing that are very important. Do I happen to think that the next stages of devolution will be some fiscal devolution? I do. But I don’t think you need to have that before you live by the whole mantra of saying what you’re going to do, and do it.”
ConHome: “I see that on your leaflets you like to emphasise, ‘I am NOT part of the Westminster or Brussels establishment’.”
ConHome: “Whereas Siôn Simon, the Labour candidate in the West Midlands, who by the way was very good fun to talk to in his days as a journalist…”
Street: “I’m sure. The choice is between someone who’s not been politically active, but has always been a Tory, but has built skills and ability and has delivered and done something; and a career politician [Simon was an MP from 2001-10 and is currently an MEP].
“It would probably be unfair to say he’s not achieved anything, but it’s difficult to find what really has been achieved through his years in public office.”
ConHome: “So that’s the pitch.”
Street: “One of the pitches. That’s the choice we’re putting before people.
“The symbolism of a win here for Theresa May’s moderate, very democratic in the sense of being unpretentious Conservative Party, in what has traditionally been a Labour heartland, would go well beyond Birmingham and Wolverhampton. So it would be seen as Corbyn losing something he should naturally have assumed he would win.”
ConHome: “The West Midlands always were seen as vital swing seats.”
Street: “Yes, but to be a pedant, a lot of those are not actually the urban core.”
ConHome: “Twenty years ago, when you went into a pub, you’d find people there saying ‘Enoch was right’. Enoch Powell was a big figure for a long time after his time as MP for Wolverhampton South West [1950-74]. Is he now?”
Street: “Never mentioned.”
ConHome: “Obviously he did retard Conservative progress among some voters of immigrant descent.”
Street: “Ah, that’s a very interesting feature. He is an utter irrelevance. I suspect if you mention that to the average voter they wouldn’t know what you’re talking about. It really is a different era.”
ConHome: “I feel rather sad about that in a way. Although I strongly disagree with the Rivers of Blood speech, he was a great figure.”
Street: “One of the reasons the Labour Party could take this area for granted, and what again makes it so interesting, is their grip over the ethnic minority vote was very, very strong.
“In this area, a third of the electors are from ethnic minorities, and I’m pretty sure that is the largest of any large area anywhere in the country. Within the ethnic minority vote it is definitely fragmenting.
“One of the features of the 2015 election, and Cameron did this extremely well, was that a greater proportion of Sikhs and Hindus voted for the Conservatives.
“The way we are approaching that is we want to understand their communities, but we do not want to treat them as isolated communities. They are a part of the total success of the West Midlands, and that’s how they want to be treated. And the Labour Party has historically been too siloed – divisive – about it.”
ConHome: “What about Muslims?”
Street: “Well, I would say that change is slower, but it’s coming. We’ve done interviews on Muslim TV with people who’ve always voted Labour who’ve come to us.”
ConHome: “And Afro-Caribbeans?”
Street: “Also interesting. Much, much more open to us. Particularly the conservative values of the Afro-Caribbean churches play well with us.
“It’s not just that I’m a Brummie. It’s that I think it’s a real cutting-edge test of the Tory Party. This thing about it being democratic, meritocratic. There’s no silver spoon here.
“I am utterly sure we’re going to win, actually.”
Street: “We only need a four per cent swing is the first thing. The second thing is that Mrs May gets Mr Corbyn. The third thing is the Andy Street versus Siôn Simon and this whole pitch that you explored.
“But the next thing is that we are going to have the best campaign. And this is where your readers come in. Our activists here are better motivated than at any time recently. And it can make a difference of those last few percentage points.”
ConHome: “I think you’re right that motivation is very important. Recently for ConservativeHome I visited Copeland, and Corbyn is a real disaster as far as getting out the traditional working-class Labour vote is concerned.
“He’s given them a reason to abandon the party. They all say ‘My father was a miner, my family have voted Labour for generations’, and then they say something unprintably rude about Corbyn.
“They have such contempt for him, and they think he’s personally insulting them somehow. I don’t know where they will go, but in Copeland the Tories will win if the Tory vote holds up and Labour just stay at home. Some of them will go to UKIP. It’s more of a jump for them to go to the Tories.”
Street: “And we’ve got the same thing playing out here, in the sense that if the Labour vote stays at home, and our vote in our areas turns out, we’re home and dry.
“But the point I was making was about the activists, who as you know drive some of that behaviour, get the vote out in our areas.
“Extremely well-motivated, but I don’t want you to think there’s hundreds and hundreds of them. The party’s been relatively weak in these urban areas. So part of this campaign is about rebuilding the party. And obviously we need all the help we can possibly get from outside.
“We’re the challenger brand. And you know that challengers are particularly well-motivated. That was something I learned in John Lewis. Never become the complacent establishment. Always have the psychology of the challenger.”