Retail guru Tory is to go up against letter gaffe Labour MP
Tories will wage new battle for Labour’s traditional ‘Red Wall’ heartlands in the Midlands: Retail guru Conservative candidate goes up against letter gaffe Labour MP in crunch mayoral vote
- Claimed the battle for Labour’s ‘Red Wall’ will be won or lost in West Midlands
- That is prediction of region’s Tory mayor and former businessman Andy Street
- Acres of coverage given to collapse of Labour’s heartlands at 2019 election
It has been billed as the clash between the successful former John Lewis boss and the career politician who left Labour’s infamous ‘I’m afraid there is no money’ letter for his Tory successor.
But the contest between Andy Street and Liam Byrne is about far more than who will be mayor.
It has been claimed the next battle for Labour’s ‘Red Wall’ will be won or lost in the West Midlands next month.
That is the prediction of the region’s Tory mayor Mr Street, the softly spoken former businessman who stunned Labour by winning the inaugural contest in 2017.
The contest between the former John Lewis boss Andy Street (left) and Labour MP Liam Byrne (right) is about more than who will be mayor
Acres of coverage were given over to the collapse of Labour’s heartlands at the 2019 general election.
According to many, Boris Johnson’s Brexit bulldozer, ably abetted by Labour’s voter-repellent leader Jeremy Corbyn, was all that was needed to succeed in the North where generations of Tories had failed.
But in an interview with the Mail, Mr Street, 57, who came to politics after a career at the helm of John Lewis, suggested the genesis of Labour’s collapse started in his own region much earlier.
‘The West Midlands was where the Red Wall first crumbled,’ he says.
‘In 2005 we had just one MP in the Black Country, we’ve now got ten of the 13.
‘Some people on the Left like to make out this was an aberration in 2019 which occurred over the twin points of Brexit and Corbyn, and I simply reject that. This has been a much more long-term phenomenon here.
‘We moved forward in 2010, 2015, 2017, 2019. My election in 2017 was the first real breakthrough point in it. What happened after is history.
‘I do believe that what we will see at this next election is that the support for the Conservatives across some of those areas is much, much more deep-seated than the Labour Party would like us to believe.’
John Lewis ‘wrong to close stores’
John Lewis announced last month it was closing eight stores
John Lewis has got it ‘wrong’ by closing flagship stores in cities like Birmingham, its former boss says.
In his interview with the Mail, Andy Street said he didn’t want to criticise the current management, but added: ‘On the Birmingham shop, that was the wrong decision.’
John Lewis announced last month it is closing eight stores in addition to the eight announced last year, including the flagship store in Birmingham which opened in 2015.
The strategy contrasts sharply with that of Mr Street, who left the retailer in 2016 after almost a decade at the helm.
After the 2008 financial crash he invested heavily in new stores and developing an online presence – not to mention launching the brand’s famous Christmas TV ads.
Tatler magazine claimed Boris Johnson’s fiancée has purged their No 10 flat of Theresa May’s ‘John Lewis furniture nightmare’.
But Mr Street points out that John Lewis products appeal to exactly the kind of ‘aspirational’ voter the Tories should be looking to attract.
‘The whole point about John Lewis is that it was an aspirational brand, but also an accessible brand – it was aspirational for everybody,’ he says.
In part, he says, it is about success in securing local investment, but also about who best represents the ‘values’ of many who once voted Labour.
Labour is looking to start the process of rebuilding its Red Wall in next month’s bumper round of local elections.
The West Midlands is among its top targets as Sir Keir Starmer tries to generate the momentum needed to show he has a serious chance of one day becoming prime minister.
Mr Street won the mayoralty by fewer than 4,000 votes – a margin of less than one per cent.
And his 2017 victory, like many other local contests being defended by the Tories next month, came at the high-water mark of Theresa May’s regime. On paper, he should lose.
‘It is going to be very, very close,’ he concedes. ‘The stakes are high for both sides. But I am confident.’
But the fact that Labour-supporting Birmingham does not have local council elections next month, while the rest of the region does, could boost his poll position by as much as four per cent, according to some analysts.
The Tories’ national polling, buoyed by the vaccine rollout, isn’t hurting either.
The contest is between Mr Street and the former Birmingham Labour MP Mr Byrne – or as he puts it, a choice between a former businessman who has done the job for four years and ‘a career politician who is as yet untested’.
To be fair, Mr Byrne is not wholly untested, having served in several junior Cabinet positions in Gordon Brown’s government.
However, he is still best known for the note he left his successor as Treasury chief secretary after Labour’s 2010 election defeat, which said simply: ‘Dear Chief Secretary, I’m afraid there is no money’ – a revealing gaffe which Mr Street cheerfully notes is still raised on doorsteps in the region today.
Mr Street says the West Midlands economy was ‘horribly knocked by the pandemic’ at a time when it had been enjoying some of the highest employment levels in the UK.
His manifesto leans towards encouraging green growth, including building on the region’s manufacturing tradition to make it a global centre for electric vehicles.
There was also a boost for Birmingham yesterday when prestigious US investment bank Goldman Sachs said it would open a new office in the city this year, its biggest in the UK outside London.
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