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27 September 2018

Andy Street says what many Conservative MPs are thinking: austerity must end

In marginal seats, Tory MPs are clear that public appetite for more cuts is low. 

By Stephen Bush

Andy Street, the Conservative Mayor for the West Midlands Combined Authority, is a lot like your average Tory MP in a marginal constituency: tapped up to enter politics after a successful career in business under David Cameron, and, all things being equal, likely to be defeated by a Labour candidate at the next election.

Although there is a general trend for first-term incumbents to do a little better than average, the demographic make-up of the conurbation, and the relatively narrow margin of his victory over a weak Labour challenger in a very bad set of elections for Labour all mean that although it is possible that Street will be re-elected, he faces a very, very tough battle to do so.

Which makes the decisions he’s made all the more remarkable. In a conurbation even more dependent on car ownership than the national average (around eight in ten essential journeys in the West Midlands are taken by car or van), he has pledged to introduce a congestion charge. He has supported rather than opportunistically opposed the measures taken by Labour councils to lower emissions and congestions, set out a path to reduce the number of journeys taken in the region by car, and talked about a post-car future for the area. He’s even signed an accord to share best practice with Sadiq Khan, another independent step at a time when the national party’s big priority ahead of the 2022 election is to make Khan a one-term mayor and to generally paint him as useless.

He’s deepened that reputation for independent-minded thinking with an interview with the Birmingham Mail on the eve of Conservative party conference (hosted in Birmingham this year) calling for Theresa May to bring the years of austerity to an end.

On this issue however, unlike cars (one Tory MP once told me that Street was “mad” not to be opposing the anti-car initiatives of Labour politicians), he is singing from a similar hymn sheet to the average Conservative MP in a marginal seat. They, too, are deeply worried that a near-decade of public spending cuts has strained public patience to breaking point and that the only way to see off Jeremy Corbyn at the next election is to turn on the taps of public spending.

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Of course, the average Conservative politician doesn’t have anything comparable to being the CEO of John Lewis on their CV, and they don’t have the advantage of a direct and personal mandate in the way that a mayor does.

But Street’s intervention will be welcomed by most of his colleagues in similar constituencies, even if it is the cause of despair and irritation among more fiscally hawkish politicians, such as Philip Hammond or Liz Truss, who believe that the real problem is that both the public sector and the country’s debts are too high, and what we need is not to be spending largesse, but wage growth and tax cuts.