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Octopus displaced by submarine: Theresa May on elected mayors
Having recently signed an academic book contract requiring the final script seven months before the proposed publication date, I’ve found the almost weekly appearance of a new Brexit volume somewhat disconcerting. One, though, I did sample – Unleashing Demons: The Inside Story of Brexit by (now Sir) Craig Oliver, David Cameron’s former Communications Director – which disclosed the delightful information that, so prone during the referendum campaign was the then Home Secretary to disappearing whenever Cameron needed her support, his staff nicknamed her ‘Submarine May’. Delightful and insightful, for Theresa May’s modus operandi on devolution and mayors over her premiership’s now 100 days has been strikingly similar.
I accept that the devolution agenda to which the Government is supposedly still committed, even adding in the arguably more radical business rates retention, is pretty small beer alongside Brexit, but it has surely merited more than what’s fluctuated between a three-month policy vacuum and a shambles.
True, the vacuum was created initially by the activism and seemingly clear direction of travel provided by the devo duo of Greg Clark at the DCLG and particularly George Osborne at the Treasury – himself dubbed ‘the octopus’ for the way his multiple metaphorical arms reached, not Trump-like into women’s clothing, but into every corner of government. Osborne’s selective, incoherent, top-down, ‘Whitehall gift model’ of secretive Treasury-approved deals fell way short, Greater Manchester possibly excepted, of the ‘Devolution Revolution’ he liked to claim, but we did know the rules of the game. Worthwhile devolution meant elected mayors. Following the mid-July banishment of the ministerial octopus, until two weeks ago, we haven’t known.
Our difficulties are reflected in the following selected entries from my personal sonar detection log of Submarine May’s tortuously evolving policy on devolution and mayors.
- Initially, the new PM said virtually nothing on the subject, which at least was understandable – other Brexity stuff to do, holidays to plan, etc.
- August 18th – May interrupted her Swiss holiday to write, or have written for her, articles in the Birmingham Mail and Yorkshire Post, describing in the former her (or Osborne’s) “plan to build a ‘Midlands Engine’, that starts by devolving powers to the West Midlands and giving you a powerful new voice by creating an elected mayor next May”.
Backing, then, for mayor-led devolution, and particularly for the prospective West Midlands Conservative mayoral candidate, former John Lewis MD, Andy Street – although others, including Labour’s candidate, former MP Siôn Simon, were by now questioning just how powerful that voice would be, if ranged against those of the leaders of the seven councils comprising the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA).
- August 22nd (Part 1) – Having just endorsed the principle of metro mayors, the still holidaying PM had another story planted in The Times, announcing her intention to “ditch George Osborne’s policy of directly elected mayors for city regions, partly to avoid Labour using them as a platform for a revival in its heartlands”. The “next phase” of devolution deals, it was suggested, could go ahead without elected mayors. An apparently 180-degree swing away from the Osborne doctrine.
- August 22nd (Part 2a) – In the less widely read but possibly more authoritative Civil Service World “the Prime Minister’s spokeswoman said The Times story was ‘wrong’, but admitted future devolution deals may not involve mayors”. Hardly clarification, but some kind of swing back.
- August 22nd (Part 2b) – Still in the Civil Service World, another ‘non-denial denial’, as they were famously labelled in All the President’s Men. In this one, “a DCLG spokesman” explained that: “Devolution deals will continue in the usual way. Elected mayors remain the best way to make them work." Hmm. Maybe a further swing back, although the day’s take-your-pick mélange of briefings served, as one senior councillor subsequently put it, as ‘jungle drums’ to some of his die-hard anti-mayoral colleagues, and several deals previously regarded as settled were now suddenly seen as potentially re-openable.
- September 8th – Following a letter from Communities Secretary Sajid Javid confirming that any North East deal should include an elected mayor, the seven council leaders voted down a previously agreed deal in a 4-3 essentially South/North Tyne split and are notified that the Government will withdraw the relevant legislation. Right back to Osborne.
- September 16th – Local Government Chronicle reported that Sheffield City Region’s devolution deal “could be on the cusp of collapse amid uncertainty over the requirement to adopt an elected mayor”, with the prospect of mayoral elections taking place next May “highly improbable”. With the West and North Yorkshire deals still to be agreed, implications for Osborne’s cherished Northern Powerhouse are also unclear – as are deal prospects in, inter alia, Greater Lincolnshire, Norfolk & Suffolk, and Cambridgeshire. Osborne scaled down?
- October 4th (Part 1) – David Gauke, not a Communities and Local Government minister, but Chief Secretary to the Treasury, tells the Yorkshire Post that “It is mayors, or no devolution”, in a move “to end speculation [at least among YP readers] that the Theresa May administration may be ready to discuss devolution of powers and money to English regions without the elected mayors demanded by her predecessor”.
- October 4th (Part 2) – Meanwhile in Birmingham, Sajid Javid’s Conservative Conference speech focuses entirely on housing, apart from two sentences about his being “proud to be continuing with our ambitious devolution agenda”.
Gauke’s boss, Chancellor Philip Hammond, talked of “harnessing the economic power of our cities” through the Northern Powerhouse and Midlands Engine, but then went quickly into the May mantra about this government being focused not just on the NP and ME, but about creating “the conditions for success in the north, the south, and everywhere in between”. No mention of mayors – apart from (again) the party’s “fantastic Conservative Mayoral candidate for the West Midlands”, Andy Street
- October 4th (Part 3) – Keynote speech at an LGA-sponsored conference fringe meeting is given by Lord Porter of Spalding, Conservative LGA Chairman and Leader of South Holland DC, one of the ten councils supposedly committed to becoming a mayoral Greater Lincolnshire CA next May. Despite considerable audience expectation, no hint of current Government thinking, but strong reiteration of his personal dislike of mayors, and a prediction that Greater Lincolnshire and most of the other now five deals due to produce elected mayors next May would collapse, leaving possibly just the three: Greater Manchester, Liverpool City Region, and the West Midlands. All of which was rather a let-down, considering …
- October 4th (Part 4) – the Local Government Chronicle’s ‘EXCLUSIVE’ revelation that “areas seeking a significant devolution deal will have to adopt an elected mayor, Theresa May has told councillors”. What’s more, she’d apparently laid down this “ultimatum” in a conference call with about 100 councillors from all tiers of local government across the country about 10 days previously.
One source, who took part in the call – though obviously not the LGA Chairman, who must have forgotten it – told LGC: “The prime minister could not have been any clearer: the government is carrying on with the devolution deals already in place and if any other areas want one you have to have an elected mayor.”
So here we have it – an insight into Submarine May’s approach to determining and announcing one very specific, purely domestic, relatively minor plank of government policy, but one affecting potentially every English citizen. Take three months, release a series of mutually conflicting and collectively misleading media statements, convene a conference call of an arbitrary collection of party members, and a week or so later dispatch a junior minister from a department not directly responsible for the policy to give an interview to a provincial newspaper. It makes Blair’s ‘sofa government’ and Alastair Campbell’s selective media briefings seem almost statesmanlike.
Chris Game is Honorary Senior Lecturer at the Institute of Local Government Studies.
Image: Masaaki Komori