The Tories are on the cusp of realising Margaret Thatcher’s 30-year-old call to sweep aside Labour in its northern heartlands, the party’s candidate for the West Midlands mayoralty has said.
Andy Street, the former John Lewis boss who quit to run for the role, told The Telegraph that Labour had taken cities in the middle and north of England “for granted” in recent years.
He said that if Birmingham and the surrounding area – traditionally packed with Labour supporters – voted in a Tory mayor it would be an “enormous breakthrough” for the party.
Victory would be proof that the modern-day Conservative Party is “moderate, tolerant, inclusive [and] genuinely wants to understand what the issues are for non-traditional Conservative voters”, he said.
The comments, made in an interview with The Telegraph, come ahead of the most tightly-fought race in a string of mayoral contests to be held on Thursday. Many council elections are also happening that day.
Mr Street has become the poster boy for Theresa May’s Tory surge into traditionally Labour strongholds as support collapses under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.
Pollsters believe the race to become the first ever West Midlands mayor is neck-and-neck despite Labour holding six of the seven councils in the area.
Victory for Mr Street on May 4 would come just months after the Tories took the Cumbrian seat of Copeland for the first time in 80 years.
Discussing what a win would mean for the Conservatives, Mr Street said it would be “very significant” endorsement for the party’s direction.
“I remember after the 1987 general election, Margaret Thatcher won but she was honest enough to say that we had not won in the urban heartlands,” he said. “She was saying the Tory Party has got to do better then. For 30 years, the same thing has been said.
“This is the party’s opportunity to prove that with the right type of campaign, right type of standard bearer and right messages from the Prime Minister we can do this.
“I think it’s absolutely critical to the point that says the Conservative Party can represent the whole of Britain that we win this election. That is what’s at stake.”
Labour holds 16 of the 24 seats in the West Midlands and won 8 per cent more of the vote than the Tories at the 2015 general election.
However, in recent months, some polls have had the Tories ahead of Labour among northern voters as Mr Corbyn struggles to adopt a unified position on Brexit.
Mr Street, who stepped away from managing John Lewis last autumn, claimed Labour voters were criticising what the party had achieved for them during conversations on the door step.
He said: “There is a questioning amongst people who have traditionally voted for the Labour Party.
“They are saying: ‘Have they delivered for us and does the current leadership really represent us? Is it capable of delivering for us in the future?’ And I think there is enormous scepticism.
“I know all politicians say this, but I hear it on the door step day after day: ‘I’ve always voted Labour but they’ve let us down locally, they’ve not delivered.”
Siôn Simon, the Labour MEP who once served as a minister under Gordon Brown, is Mr Street’s biggest rival in the campaign.
The result could depend on turnout, with Labour likely to benefit if less than 20 per cent of voters head to the polls rather than the 30 per cent Mr Street is estimating.
Mr Street said: “Everyone is saying that it is all to play for, that it is close. But actually I think it is winnable. That, in itself, is very, very heartening in an area that the Labour Party has probably taken it for granted.”
Interview: Being Mayor? It’s just like running John Lewis
It was an article in the Birmingham Mail that convinced Andy Street to quit as boss of one of Britain’s best-loved businesses and become a politician.
The piece listed 11 possible candidates, from little-known MPs to fading New Labour stars, for the newly created position of West Midlands Mayor.
Mr Street, managing director of John Lewis at the time, had played a part in creating the new role as one of the region’s leading businessmen.
But it was only when he saw the names in the running – including his own – that he decided to pack in a 31-year career with the company and go for it.
“I looked at that article and thought ‘no, that’s not right. This is the job I’ve now realised I wanted to do for a long time’,” he says. “I felt it viscerally: ‘No, I’ve got to do this.’”
His colleagues thought he was mad. “All sorts of people said to me ‘my goodness, you’ve been a successful business person, why on earth do you want to do this?
“The answer is because I genuinely think I can make a difference. So I disregarded any of the questions … and just knew I had to do this.”
That decision has led him to the brink of what could be one of Theresa May’s most startling electoral triumphs to date.
Voting history suggests this mayoralty should be an easy win for Labour, which holds seven out of eight councils in the area and 16 of 24 MPs.
But pollsters this month said the race was between Mr Street and Labour’s Siôn Simon was neck-and-neck – the closest of all the new mayoral races happening on May 4..
Talking during a sunny day’s campaigning in Coventry, there is little sign of Mr Porter’s political inexperience as he speaks fluidly and steps easily round awkward questions.
His Conservative support is certainly nothing new, having been driven to the party by the mismanagement of the Labour Government in the late 1970s.
After a childhood in Birmingham he headed to Oxford University, chairing the Conservative Association, before joining the John Lewis graduate scheme and eventually rising to the top.
The 53-year-old sees the principles picked up from the company as relevant to his political career ahead. “I have seen in John Lewis how business can be a force for good in society,” Mr Street says.
“I genuinely think that we as an employer could give people opportunities to improve themselves. I also think we did a decent job in the communities that we trade in and I thought we were very decent in terms of how we worked with our suppliers.”
“It was a different type of business. It was a business that shared its success amongst its employees.
“Now it’s not a perfect parallel, but I think this whole point about building a society that shares the fruits of its success more equally … the same principle applies [to John Lewis].”
May delights in Copeland win
Modern politics is littered with business gurus who have switched across to politics with lofty ambitions before tripping up in Westminster.
Archie Norman, the former Asda boss, made the Tory frontbench shortly after election in 1997 but lasted less than two years.
Sir Stuart Rose, who led Marks & Spencer, chaired the pro-EU referendum campaign but was kept away from cameras after a string of blunders.
Does Mr Street fear a similar flop? “It is a fair question,” he says. “This political job is different. I’m not trying to be a party MP, I’m not trying to be a party minister.
“I’m trying to do an individual job where the team that has got to be built is cross-party with lots of non-politicians – businesses, community groups – coming together.
“The people who tend to be pointed to have tended to have gone into more traditional political jobs.”
He has a business-heavy manifesto, dubbed a “renewal plan for the West Midlands”. House building while protecting the Green Belt, delivering High Speed Two, and ensuring local companies benefit from Brexit all feature.
A new drive to relocate Channel Four to the region after the Culture Secretary floated the idea of forcing it to move from London has also recently been plugged.
Number 10 see Mr Street as their latest great hope for a Tory surge in Labour’s traditional heartlands and have sent a stream of cabinet ministers to campaign.
Brexit, which a majority backed in the region, combined with a dramatic slump in Labour support under Jeremy Corbyn has created the opportunity.
New Tory MP for Copeland sworn in
To capitalise on it, Mr Street sees that other famous Tory mayor, Boris Johnson, as setting the example for how to win and flourish in the role.
“We take a lot of inspiration from what Boris did,” he says. “What voters see in Boris is someone who represented London around the world.
“My goodness, he wasn’t restricted to what it said in the job description. He just stepped forward and batted for London everywhere.
“What people here say is we haven’t had someone batting for the West Midlands in that same way. Almost irrespective of their politics, they say ‘bring it on’.”
To do so, Mr Street says he is ready to stand up to Mrs May despite both being Tories – and told her as much last August.
During a meeting in Downing Street about whether he should run, Mr Streettold the Prime Minister he would have to speak out if Government policy hurt Birmingham.
“She had just been elected [as Tory leader]. I was deciding whether or not to do it and throw in my John Lewis career,” he recalls.
“I went to see her, at her request. She told me she would support me down the line. That’s been followed through on, brilliant support frankly.
“And equally, I said ‘I would like to do this but Prime Minister, we need to be clear. I will need to do it first and foremost as someone representing the West Midlands.
“We won’t necessarily always agree and that is how it’s going to be’. I think that is very, very healthy.”
Mrs May agreed, he was unveiled the next month and could now become mayor of the UK’s second biggest city and the surrounding area within weeks.
If he does that, Mr Street will have repaid the Prime Minister’s loyalty already – by proving her new look party really can sweep away Labour in its traditional heartlands.