Eliot Wilson

Could Andy Street be a future Tory leader?

(Photo: Getty)

Andy Street was a political outsider when he was chosen as the Conservative party’s candidate for mayor of the new West Midlands Combined Authority in 2016. He was 53 and had enjoyed a successful career in retail, latterly as managing director of John Lewis and Partners. This weekend, after seven years as mayor, he was narrowly defeated by Labour’s Richard Parker, the margin just 1,508 votes out of a total of 600,000.

Street has become a considerable figure in Conservative politics

Street has become a considerable figure in Conservative politics, seen as straightforward and practical, an effective champion for his region. Partly this has been a result of his status as an outsider, someone who is not in hock to the party machine. Indeed, this time he had campaigned virtually as an independent, eschewing any obvious Conservative branding and highlighting his own achievements as mayor.

When he conceded defeat on Saturday, he did not conceal his disappointment but was characteristically pragmatic. He told voters that he had ‘genuinely believed we were making real progress across the region’ and had ‘put my all into this’. Defeat left him ‘personally devastated’ but he accepted his part in the result.

‘I’m not going to try to push responsibility anywhere else. There’ll be no sloping shoulders from me,’ he said, before wishing his successor ‘all strength and wisdom’.

It was a classy performance, one which will have sharpened the sadness many Conservatives already felt at his loss. Street balanced acceptance with an honest admission of acute disappointment, and that collection of emotions felt real and unfiltered. After a grim few days for the party, and with the memory of Susan Hall’s less gracious concession speech in London still fresh in the mind, some have now wondered if Street should now look to a future at Westminster. Perhaps, one theory goes, he might even be a contender for the Conservative leadership in the wake of an election defeat.

Elected mayors of large authorities are still novel in our constitutional arrangements. The mayor of London took office in 2000, but the next clutch of six elected positions did not come into being until 2017. As a result, we are still in the foothills of understanding how these figures, powerful in their regions and with personal electoral mandates much bigger than any individual Member of Parliament, interact with the centralised Whitehall state.

When Sadiq Khan left the House of Commons to become mayor of London in 2016, it was believed by many that he wanted to distance himself from Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour party and create an alternative power base. From here, perhaps, he could return to national politics when, as seemed inevitable, the Corbyn project ran aground. Yet Khan remains mayor now, elected a third time, while Sir Keir Starmer, who sat in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet for four years, is all but measuring the curtains for Downing Street.

Similar motives were ascribed to Andy Burnham. In 2016, while serving as Corbyn’s shadow home secretary, he announced he would seek to be Labour’s candidate for mayor of the new Greater Manchester Combined Authority. Like Khan, he has been re-elected, but, also like Khan, there now seems no obvious way back to Westminster.

Boris Johnson trod this path, of course. Aiming from a young age to be ‘world king’, he had become MP for Henley in 2001 and appointed to and sacked from Michael Howard’s front bench when he left the House of Commons in 2008 to take on Ken Livingstone for the London mayoralty. He beat the incumbent and fended him off again in 2012, and used his eight years as mayor of London to remain a big beast in the Conservative jungle. When he returned to Westminster in 2015 he was obviously waiting for a tilt at the leadership, and after the abortive run of 2016 he beat Jeremy Hunt to the premiership in 2019.

Andy Street would not be deluded to wonder about a similar trajectory. He is only 60 years old and could easily find himself a berth at the next election if the cards fell his way. The Conservative party, after all, has only selected 342 candidates for the 631 seats they will contest. In his own West Midlands, there are still formally vacancies at Solihull West and Shirley, Halesowen and Cannock Chase, for example.

It can be difficult to carry a big reputation into Westminster and expect to skip the novice’s years in the trenches. The House of Commons is an organism and it sometimes rejects transplants. Some outsiders either cannot or will not learn its style and culture. All the same, if Street joined a depleted Conservative party in opposition as it looked to rebuild itself, he would have much to offer. He has a national profile, real-world credentials and experience of executive authority. It would not be a guarantee of success, but it could plausibly be his next chapter.

Written by
Eliot Wilson

Eliot Wilson was a clerk in the House of Commons 2005-16, including on the Defence Committee. He is a member of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).

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