The mayoral election will test whether the Conservatives can hold their gains in the Red Wall
West Midlands mayor Andy Street, who is the former managing director of John Lewis and a former president of the Oxford University Conservative Association, greeted me on a video call with an illustrated map of the region behind him.
Like many parts of the election season this year, traditional press conferences and campaign meetings have had to go digital – and our meeting was no exception.
Street was born in Oxfordshire but raised in Birmingham, Northfield to be precise, which became the latest West Midlands metro constituency to go blue at the 2019 general election.
“I thought we could do better as a region in terms of opportunities, jobs, confidence, investment,” he states simply when asked about his motivation for standing.
He’s not wrong.
The West Midlands has one of the highest number of people living in poverty in the UK. According to a recent government report, one in five residents are surviving on an income well below the national average, before housing costs are taken into account – meaning the true figure is possibly higher.
And research by Loughborough University found that a third of children under 16 in the West Midlands were living in poverty before the pandemic struck.
Despite this, Street says he thinks things were heading in the right direction before Covid-19 – and says a plan is needed moving forward to deal with the fallout.
“I think the single word is plan, because nobody’s questioning the challenge that we’ve got at the moment – whatever I might say about how things were relatively good before Covid, we know we’ve had a horrible hit,” he said.
“Let’s look at transport… The fact is, we are now investing seven times what we were before I was mayor, and it is true that for decades public transport was under invested in compared to London – a joke that you will definitely get, the bus system is exactly the same as it was when I went to school.”
As a native Brummie, I get the joke – but I’m not sure how much I enjoy laughing about my city’s failing infrastructure.
While the tram has still not progressed significantly in the four years he’s been mayor, Street staunchly defended his record, saying. “I think there’s clear evidence of change” in transport infrastructure like buses.
On jobs, Street says investment in infrastructure, and opportunities from the Commonwealth Games 2022 in Birmingham next year, will help boost job figures.
When asked about comments among those in Number 10 on not wanting the Downing Street flat to look like a John Lewis advert, the company’s former managing director said it annoyed him.
“Yes, it did [annoy me],” he said.
“I wanted John Lewis to be that aspirational brand, but I wanted it to be in reach of everybody.”
Adding: “I think personally that a Conservative Prime Minister should be in tune with that sort of set people, aspiring to the achievable not out of touch – and I thought it was an unfortunate comment.”
A recent Opinium poll for the Observer found 67 per cent of respondents think John Lewis is very posh or fairly posh.
A critique of Street is that he has not been as outspoken as some of his mayoral peers – such as Andy Burnham, who garnered a significant amount of press attention last year over his opposition to locking down the North without adequate financial support.
“What I understood is how you make the better business case in a way in which government ministers and civil servants [will appreciate],” he said.
“The housing deal that was struck for £50 million had to be personally agreed by the chancellor, because it was a lot of money…
“And so you’ve got why we’ve got the money – because we put the legwork in in understanding that, and I genuinely think we’ve done that well.”
Street’s comments put him at odds with other regional mayors, including Burnham who compared the chancellor’s budget this year to “a packet of polos” – refreshing, but full of holes when it came to full economic support.
And there are those that say his relationship with Johnson is fraught – including his opponent, Labour MP for Birmingham Hodge Hill, Liam Byrne.
“It’s tittle-tattle when Boris was here on Monday, wasn’t it?” he said.
“The historical fact is that Theresa and I have the same view on Europe, of course, and that’s why people say what they do.
“But I’m afraid that both sides of the debate are now history, and Boris and I have a perfectly effective, good working relationship.”
Despite Street’s position on Brexit, however, he was very vocal on campaigning to “get Brexit done.”
When asked about the recent controversies swirling around Number 10 and Boris Johnson, Street was relatively frank.
On Johnson allegedly saying “no more fucking lockdowns – let the bodies pile high!” Street said: “I don’t know more than you about whether it’s true or not – I frankly can’t believe it’s true.
“And of course, [those comments] shouldn’t be made, but I know absolutely nothing about it.”
Johnson has denied the allegations, but multiple sources have come forward to media organisations – including the BBC and ITV – confirming he said it, with some saying they’d swear so under oath.
On an investigation into Greensill, and whether he is disappointed by former Conservative prime minister David Cameron, he said he supported the idea of an investigation.
“This is a very important principle here, the public has to have confidence that politics is being conducted appropriately, transparently, honourably and the full accountability,” he said.
However, he stopped short of commenting further.
“I’m not going to give any commentary on it, but the principle has to be established.”
When asked about the allegations concerning discrepancies in Liam Byrne’s campaign expenses, and his opposition more generally, Street was quite restrained.
“My whole approach has been to talk about what I will do for the West Midlands, not to get into the traditional politics,” he said.
“This is not my business… I think it says in the paper that Andrew Bridgen has made a complaint that will be investigated in that way, so it’s not for me to comment on it at all.”
He added: “I have absolutely stuck to that all the way through and I don’t intend to change in the last 10 days.”
However, while insisting he is not a traditional politician, he is an archetypal conservative: Oxford educated, former president of the Oxford University Conservative Association, and a millionaire businessman.
On the Conservatives gaining ground in the West Midlands, Street says it’s part of a long-term trend – and the data supports that. Twenty years ago, Labour held all but four seats out of the 28 in the West Midlands – now, the number has shrunk to half.
“If you just look at the 28 seats, the West Midlands combined authority, the mayoral area, we only had three in 2005/2010, isn’t it?
“So it’s a long term trend, and that’s why I don’t think it’s just a flash in the pan over Boris and Brexit in 2019.”
When asked about a recent poll in the Times that placed him almost ten points ahead of his main opposition, Byrne, he was modest about it.
“I would say [this election] is going to be incredibly close,” he said.
“Yes, they gave me a little lead – but I discarded it, to be very honest, we just keep fighting for every single vote.
“And, as every politician says, there’s only one vote that matters next Thursday.”
The mayoral election is likely to be a close one, as Street won a majority in 2017 by just 4,000 votes.
On devolution, Street said he wants more of it; devolution became a sticking point at the end of last year when some regional mayors pushed back on government policy.
“I don’t get obsessed with it because, actually, if you think of some of the things we’ve talked about you don’t have to have devolution to make that happen,” he said.
“I perhaps led the campaign [over Covid-19 financial support] to persuade the prime minister, [it did not] say that in my job description, I just stepped forward and decided to champion it and use the role [I have] to do that.”
Adding: “But to answer the question head on, I guess I do believe in further [devolution] – and I hope that the outcome of a second mayoral term will be that that’s the discussion that happens in London.”
On whether he should be more outspoken, Street said he had a different strategy to other mayors.
“I am happy with my approach of working in that business-like way, rather than necessarily the megaphone.”
As the interview drew to a close, I got a sense of cautious confidence from Street’s campaign.
And with a new poll in The Times coming out this week showing yet another another huge lead for Street, it’s easy to see why.
However, while Street enjoys a comfortable lead locally, accusations of “Tory sleaze” in the parliamentary Conservative party by Labour may be sticking in the national polls.
Some released over the weekend show the Conservative’s lead has dropped to just 1 point nationally, a dramatic change to where the party were polling just one month ago.
If the Conservatives manage to hold the West Midlands mayorship, it will be a significant victory for the party in what was once a Labour heartland. If they don’t, it could be a sign of the Conservatives’ appeal slipping away among their some of their newer voters, giving Labour some reprieve.