Greg Clark is on a mission to correct what he sees as Labour’s “emasculation” of Britain’s largest cities and its obsession with “artificial regions”.
The Conservative minister in charge of the government’s push to install directly elected mayors across England told the Financial Times: “No one has any feeling or recognition for the north-west,” he said, referring to Lord Prescott’s doomed attempts to create a devolved regional assembly for the area. “It undermined the identity of cities like Liverpool and Manchester. They emasculated these cities by putting them below a Whitehall structure.”
Mr Clark is embarking on a tour of the 10 English cities due to vote on May 3 whether or not to have a mayor, supported by Lord Heseltine, the former Conservative minister who has been pushing the idea for decades, and Lord Adonis, the former Labour transport secretary.
If their campaign is successful, it could see local government in England reshaped, with 26 mayors hoping to emulate the success of Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson in putting London issues at the centre of national politics.
Supporters of elected mayors were given a huge boost last month when Liam Byrne, the shadow work and pensions secretary, said he would leave frontbench politics if Birmingham decided to have a mayor, and leave Westminster altogether if chosen as the mayoral candidate.
Mr Clark said the announcement was a big coup for the “yes to mayors” campaign. “The fact that he would rather be mayor of Birmingham than in the shadow cabinet underlines that to be mayor of one of these cities is a huge job.” Lord Heseltine has described it as a “more demanding and more exciting job than half the cabinet”.
Mr Byrne will join two other well-known Labour politicians in fighting for the party’s nomination: Sion Simon, the former Erdington MP, and Gisela Stuart, the MP for Birmingham Edgbaston.
The prospect of sitting MPs stepping down, however, has prompted nerves among some in the Labour party who want to avoid costly by-elections. Harriet Harman, deputy leader, has even raised the idea of banning MPs from standing as mayors.
There are signs, however, that other cities will struggle to attract the same calibre of politician. John Healey, the former housing minister, has denied rumours he wants to be mayor of Sheffield, telling the Financial Times: “I am a national politician, not a local politician.”
Mr Healey is particularly concerned about one aspect of the job that remains so far unclear: what powers mayors will actually have. Cities will vote on whether to elect a mayor with the same powers as the current council leader, but ministers have hinted that they could be granted more in the future.
Mr Clark says he wants mayors to have more powers over transport and talks of letting cities keep more of the proceeds from encouraging growth. He even refuses to rule out letting mayors set their own rates of business tax. But Mr Healey said: “None of these mayors are serious positions – there is no systematic devolution of power from Whitehall.”
Lord Heseltine says such complaints approach the problem from the wrong angle, saying it is up to mayors to demand powers from Whitehall. He recently told reporters: “It’s not like Alex Salmond [the Scottish first minister] sits there in Scotland and thinks, ‘I wonder what powers they will give me?’ He decides what he wants and demands it.”
Mayors will be helped in those demands by regular meetings with the prime minister, who has promised to chair a biannual “cabinet of mayors”. But the main hurdle to real devolution remains Whitehall.
The other obstacle is the possibility that local people will reject the idea altogether. A small but vociferous “No” campaign has mobilised in Birmingham, and has produced leaflets comparing elected mayors to local dictators.
Mr Clark remains optimistic and has high hopes for the May 3 elections. “It is now clear that the mould is broken,” he says. “I now see a strong momentum in every city that I visit.”
Sceptics say Mr Byrne is motivated more by fears that boundary changes might make his seat harder to hold. However, Mr Clark insists the fact that he is willing to swap Westminster for Birmingham shows regional devolution is gaining momentum.