Matthew Parris may have glimpsed a solution: “You could call it Street-Davidson Conservatism.” He wrote this after watching Andy Street, Mayor of the West Midlands.
Ruth Davidson, leader of the Conservatives in Scotland since 2011, performs with such brio that she has become famous far beyond her native Scotland. Street is newer to politics, possesses less panache and is not yet well-known outside the West Midlands, where he recently completed his first year in office.
So why might this somewhat underwhelming figure be part of the solution to the Conservatives’ difficulties? Parris described the Mayor in action:
“As I watched him work the room, hugging, gripping hands, I got an almost American sense of ‘feelgood’ politics. But there was nothing cut-throat about his facts-based approach. We saw a video of him at a Pride festival; a Diwali festival, Eid receptions and a Mayor and Faith conference. He spoke with feeling about housing for rough-sleepers, and safe accommodation for the vulnerable.
“And he hardly mentioned the Labour Party. Instead he talked about all parties joining forces in support of the region’s wellbeing.”
When Stanley Baldwin, from nearby Worcestershire, dominated British politics and led the Conservatives between the wars, he aspired to be “the leader of the people who do not belong to any party”. Street, in his understated way, adopts a similarly unpartisan approach, which is hard to dramatise, but also hard for Labour to oppose, because it is so “moderate, inclusive and tolerant”, as he himself put it when he spoke to ConHome at the start of last year.
In that interview, Street professed his conviction that he was going to defeat his Labour rival, Sion Simon, and said:
“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.”
On 4th May 2017, Street defeated Simon in the election for West Midland Mayor by the narrow margin, in the second and final round, of 238,628 votes to 234,862, carrying Dudley, Solihull and Walsall, but losing in Birmingham, Coventry, Sandwell and Wolverhampton.
To see how remarkable this victory was, it is worth glancing at the result of the election for the West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner, held a year before, in precisely the same area, on a similar turnout, which Labour won by 306,578 votes to 176,922 for the Conservatives.
The next election for West Midlands Mayor will be held in May 2020, and then every four years after that, so Street is under pressure to show early signs of progress. ConHome asked Jonathan Walker, political editor of The Birmingham Mail, for his verdict on the Mayor’s first year. Walker replied:
“The West Midlands has had a number of big wins since Andy Street became Mayor.
“Birmingham was chosen to host the 2022 Commonwealth Games and Coventry won its bid to become UK City of Culture 2021.
“The West Midlands got £350 million to help build 215,000 homes, there’s £250 million to expand the Midland Metro light rail scheme and Coventry is getting £80 million for a research centre.
“But it’s hard to know how much of this is down to the Mayor. Even back when George Osborne was Chancellor, the Government realised it was in danger of looking too obsessed with Manchester and began looking for ways to demonstrate its support for the Midlands.
“One of Andy Street’s strengths is that he seems to be driven by results, not by party politics. For example, he’s backed Birmingham’s Labour council after it proposed a road-charging scheme, even though the local Conservative councillors are opposing it.
“It makes him a unifying figure locally. I don’t know whether it’s possible for any politician to keep that up if they move on to the national stage.”
In a piece for The Birmingham Mail, Walker identified another of Street’s strengths:
“In person he’s charming and upbeat. If you suspect that he’s secretly a little shy, that only makes him harder to dislike.
“And while he’s reluctant to talk about his private life, the fact that he’s openly gay might once again help to reassure some liberal-minded voters that he’s the type of Tory they can put up with.”
Street, who was born in 1963, grew up in Northfield, on the southern outskirts of Birmingham, and in Solihull, by tradition in Warwickshire but now part of the West Midlands conurbation.
His parents, who were scientists, sent him to King Edward’s School, whose old boys include A.E.Housman, J.R.R.Tolkien, Enoch Powell and David Willetts.
He read Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Keble College, Oxford, and served as President of Oxford University Conservative Association, but was turned down when he applied to Birmingham Council to become a social worker.
In 1985, Street was instead taken on by the John Lewis Partnership, where he did very well, rising to serve as Managing Director from 2005-16, during which period sales rose by 50 per cent.
Now he was eminent, his old school interviewed him, asking “What is the best piece of advice you have ever been given?”
Street replied: “To turn the other cheek. Fights are rarely worth it!”
This is not the adversarial style of politics which so many of us know and love, but it may look more grown-up to the voters than holding an interminable series of fights behind the bike sheds.
When he addressed the Conservative Party Conference last autumn, a few months after his victory, he said his manifesto was “moderate, tolerant and inclusive”, and “talked of the practical things, jobs, homes, transport”.
Street added that “it worked for me, and it can work for the party nationally when the time comes”.
Here is an understated, unpretentious, unexciting style of politics, a John Lewis conservatism which means delivering the goods better than one’s competitors. Street has broken into Labour’s urban heartlands not by being strident or hard-line on issues such as immigration, but by being calm and consensual, doing a lot of successful advocacy for his region, and seldom rushing into the controversies of the day, such as Brexit.
Street did warn that breaks in the supply chain would damage the West Midlands, but even then he employed a somewhat dull tone of voice, as in this piece for The Times:
“Technology will of course be a part of the solution. At John Lewis, just like Jaguar Land Rover, we invested huge amounts of money in our supply chain to make sure that we tracked every item from supplier, to warehouse, to lorry, to store, to customer. But we need to make sure any changes are implemented in a low-risk way which maintains trade flows through the transition period and beyond. If the technology doesn’t work for car parts at Dover or Felixstowe, if there are big delays, new checks or burdensome processes to claim back customs paid, costs will go up and companies will struggle. If we get this wrong, we will see the unintended destruction of thousands of jobs in the automotive industry in the West Midlands… Let’s listen to what businesses in the West Midlands are telling us, and make sure the only friction in the car industry after Brexit is more British-made cars driving off forecourts around the world.”
The modern Conservative champion of intervention, Michael Heseltine, described by Street as his “soulmate”, and as “the architect of devolution” to the metro mayors, could be expected to put the point more vehemently than that.
And Street’s friend Michael Fabricant, a Conservative MP since 1992, with whom he shares a holiday home in North Wales, is likewise a more extrovert figure.
In 2020, Street can expect to face a Labour challenger – possibly Sion Simon again, or Liam Byrne, or Ian Austin – who is intensely political. Like Davidson in Scotland, where the next elections for the Scottish Parliament are in 2021, the West Midlands Mayor can hardly duck that fight.
So Tories like Parris who dream of a Street-Davidson ticket have several years to wait, which is one reason why they can be expected to go on propping up Theresa May.