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2 September 2021updated 03 Sep 2021 9:59am

The Conservative Party used to care about cities – and in Birmingham Andy Street is reminding them why

For the mayor of the West Midlands, it's vital that the Tories target "young and diverse" metropolitan voters.

By Stephen Bush

For a Londoner, getting out of bed early and taking a bus, then the Tube, before sitting on an intercity train for the best part of two hours just to look at a bus station might feel like a somewhat eccentric way to spend a morning. But the new stop in Birmingham’s Perry Barr neighbourhood is, honestly, worth the journey. Sleek and silver, this is one of the new stations built in part to welcome the Commonwealth Games to Birmingham next year, and in part to persuade residents to learn to love the bus.

I have come here not just to stare at a bus station, but to meet the combined authority mayor for the West Midlands, Andy Street.

“The car is going to be essential for life for so many citizens,” Street tells me. “But if you are commuting into one of our city centres, or indeed between our towns and cities, we have to provide an alternative.” He sees it as a task in four parts: new bus routes; other modes of transport, from the expanded tram network to the local commuter railways; lower fares (as of 21 June, bus fares in the conurbation are the cheapest in England); and, crucially, a network that attempts to make public transport not only clean and reliable, but beautiful and desirable.

Street, who before being elected in 2017 was the managing director of John Lewis, is aiming for something policy wonks call “modal shift”: in this case, the transition of journeys away from private cars and towards public transport. This is something you’d expect to hear from any of the mayors of England’s great cities, whether Steve Rotheram in Liverpool, Andy Burnham in Manchester, Tracy Brabin in West Yorkshire, Dan Norris in the West of England, or Sadiq Khan in London. There is one important difference, however: Rotheram, Burnham, Brabin, Norris and Khan are all Labour mayors, while Street is a Conservative: since the 2021 local elections, Birmingham is the only one of England’s great cities to be Tory-run.

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Similar to the West Yorkshire and West of England mayoralties, the West Midlands authority comprises multiple major cities: not only Birmingham but Coventry and Wolverhampton, too. So although the city of Birmingham narrowly voted for Labour’s Liam Byrne in this year’s election, Street is still in office. This can be attributed to his ability to win over Labour voters: at least 10,000 people who backed Simon Foster, the Labour police and crime commissioner, switched to Street in the mayoral race.

In that respect, of all serving politicians Street is the closest to being Boris Johnson’s true heir – someone able to win in areas that the present-day Conservative Party cannot. Both have an infectious enthusiasm. One of the things that is particularly engaging about Street is how much he loves Birmingham: he is continually breaking off mid-conversation to point out a local business, charity or some other source of civic pride.

But there the similarities end. Johnson’s is the enthusiasm of a naughty schoolboy, whereas you can still see Street’s CEO past in how he approaches problems and talks about his patch. It’s easy to picture him both negotiating with the government and mucking in on a till during a busy Christmas rush – something it’s hard to imagine the Prime Minister doing, at least not in a way that would be particularly helpful. But he rubbishes suggestions that he and Johnson do not get on. “Boris Johnson could not have been more supportive of me personally, and he absolutely gets the mayoral model,” Street tells me. But he concedes that “on some of the big calls” his position was closer to David Cameron – a Remainer whose politics are unapologetically rooted in his love of an urban centre – than to “a lot of the leading members of the current government”.

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Cities are the source of one major change in Tory party politics. In 2016, when the Conservatives paraded their brand-new candidate for the West Midlands mayoralty around their conference in Birmingham, places like that city, and indeed London, were seen as the next frontier of the Tory electoral project. The party had won a slew of prosperous London marginals in the 2015 election and saw its future in making further inroads in the major cities, including Manchester and Bristol.

There are Conservatives at Westminster who talk with as much enthusiasm as their Labour counterparts about the transport revolution: one of them, Andrew Gilligan, works for Johnson in Downing Street, and is a key architect of the government’s low-traffic neighbourhoods and Grant Shapps’ radical plans to reshape the railways. But the changing contours of the Conservative Party mean that no one is seriously talking about London and Birmingham as the sources of the next Tory majority.

For Street, that was one reason why it was so important to win re-election this year. Part of the focus on cities is practical. “We all know our affluent counties are more affluent than anywhere in France or Germany,” he says, “but we know that the GDP per head of this city is a lot less than Frankfurt and Lyon, for example. So that is where the… most potential for growth is.” But the other aspect is philosophical: Tories should be able to win cities, he believes, because a healthy Conservativism ought to be delivering for “the young and the diverse”, who are most commonly found in cities.

There is a divide in the Conservative Party that Street’s election-winning heroics allow it to ignore, for now: it is a party whose electoral interests lie outside of England’s great cities, but it still has a policy interest in increased growth, better public transport and a more prosperous future. The question is whether those two aspects of Conservativism can co-exist. Or if, just as Johnson supplanted Cameron, big-city Tories might one day have to reclaim the party nationally if they want to keep winning locally. 

[See also: The year that tested Anneliese Dodds’ loyalty]

This article appears in the 10 Sep 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Labour's lost future