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Tory mayor keeps distance from Sunak to avoid election wipeout


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PRIME MINISTER Rishi Sunak faces heavy losses in a swathe of local votes next week, and one of the best hopes for success for his Tories is a prominent mayor who is loath to even mention his party or its leader in his campaign.

Andy Street has been mayor of the West Midlands, which includes Britain’s second biggest city Birmingham, since 2017, building a personal brand that downplays his party allegiance in a region which traditionally backs the opposition Labour party.

A former managing director of retailer John Lewis, much-loved by many Britons, Street has a website that uses green and not the Tories’ traditional blue, and the “About Andy Street” section doesn’t mention his party.

The imperative to distance himself from Sunak’s government has grown over the past year given the Tories’ dire poll position, now hovering some 20 points behind Labour, and a public spat between Sunak and Street over a cancelled high-speed rail link from Birmingham to Manchester in the north of England.

“We did have a serious row, and I disagreed with what (Sunak) did … It was a very good example of putting the place I represent before the party label,” Street said.

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He makes no apologies for playing down his Tory allegiance. “It’s been helpful, all the way through, but it’s been utterly consistent,” he said, adding that this came with the role of being a mayor rather than a lawmaker in London.

Sunak has struggled to resuscitate Tory fortunes nationally after scandals and economic mismanagement brought down former prime ministers Boris Johnson and Liz Truss in a matter of months in 2022, tanking their party’s ratings.

A widespread wipeout for the Tories at the May 2 local council elections could put pressure on Sunak’s leadership and force him to bring forward a national election he currently expects to hold in the second half of the year – and must be held by January 2025.

When most of the councils were last contested in 2021, the Tories received a national equivalent share of the vote of around 40 per cent, with Labour on 30 per cent, parliamentary figures show.

Akash Paun, from the Institute for Government think-tank, said it would be a “defensive election” for the Tories as their decent showing in 2021 gave them more to lose this time.

Ten regional mayors will be elected in all with Tory Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen and London’s Labour mayor Sadiq Khan seeking re-election, while a by-election to a parliamentary seat in Blackpool South may prove a further headache for Sunak.

Asked whether the party name had become “toxic” with Street and Houchen both omitting Tory branding from some leaflets, Sunak praised their record.

“Whether it’s Ben, whether it’s Andy, you’ve got a very clear choice, and you can see what the Tories are actually delivering,” Sunak told reporters on a trip.

The effective bankruptcy of the Labour-run council in Birmingham, which controls its own budget separately to the regional mayoralty, provides a microcosm for some of the sharp debates between the parties nationally.

Tories – including Street – say it shows how Labour can’t be trusted with running budgets, while Labour argues it highlights a national problem caused by Tory central government cuts in funding to local councils since 2010.

Polls give a mixed picture for Street,indicating the Tory brand may be tarnishing his campaign.

One poll last week found that while he personally had a positive approval rating of +12 per cent, he still trailed the Labour candidate by 14 points. A different survey found that Street had a two-point lead.

At a debate last week between the candidates in Birmingham, some voters were open to Street’s pitch of delivering investment, transport and training, even if they wouldn’t usually vote for Tories.

“I lean more towards Labour, but I generally think Andy Street’s done a very good job over the last few years,” said Alistair Russell, 35, who works in property. He added that while he wouldn’t vote Conservative in a national election, “I do consider voting for him”.

Labour candidate Richard Parker, an accountant who worked on setting up the devolution settlement for the West Midlands, is keen to link Street with the unpopular national government.

“Sadly, under a Tory government and a Tory mayor, this region has been going backwards, not forwards,” Parker said.

While the polls paint a bleak picture for Tories nationwide, the unpredictability of local races and lower turnout give Street a chance, which may in turn buy Sunak some breathing space.

“It’s going to be very close, isn’t it?” Street said, adding he was relieved there was no national election on the same day.



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