A bit like the geniuses at Fifa who suddenly realised, about three years after awarding the 2022 World Cup to Qatar, that it's quite difficult to play football in a very hot country, it seems to have abruptly dawned on George Osborne that there is a place called The North. I know his constituency, Tatton in Cheshire, is technically in the North, but there's not much difference in the price of ladies' hats between west London and Knutsford, the genteel heart of his seat, so he may not have noticed that there is a richly varied land that is the rest of the UK.
As if he were hanging pretty baubles on a Christmas tree, the Chancellor adorned his Autumn Statement last Thursday with references to wonderful things that are happening outside the capital. So on the railways, he didn't just mention High Speed 2 (which many people believe is just another boost to the capital), but praised something called the "Northern Hub". I am from Liverpool but I've obviously been living in London too long and the Northern Hub doesn't get much of a name-check in Westminster, so I had to Google it. It's not a nightclub in Warrington but a project, started by the previous Labour government and supported by the coalition, to improve the train network between Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds and Newcastle.
But there was more: Osborne said the number of jobs in Carlisle, the Wirral, Selby and South Tyneside had all grown faster than in London since 2010. In "Manchester and Leeds and across the country" (Osborne made sure to name only those two cities), £1bn will be spent on new housing. For Anglesey, there's a new agreement with Hitachi on a nuclear power station; in Edinburgh, government money will be spent on a centre in honour of Professor Peter Higgs, the physicist and Nobel laureate. The South-east must have felt rather left out. Surrey seemed to be the hardest word.
I can imagine, in the crowd-sourcing among Treasury aides and Osborne's circle that went on before the Autumn Statement, a conversation that went along these lines. Osborne: "Look, so the economy is recovering but we need to demonstrate that it's not all built on the same London-centric foundations that got us into this mess in the first place." Aide: "We can certainly do that – let's pull together some great stats about how many more jobs and houses there are up north than there were before. If we get stuck, Rupert has a map." Osborne: "Ok, brilliant, and let's focus on proper places, not all that desolate stuff which my father-in-law wants to seize for fracking." Second aide: "Is it too late to swap your new Bichon Frise for a whippet?" And so on.
It is marvellous for fantastic northern engines of growth to be recognised as such. Add to this list Hull, for too long unfairly derided as a grimy backwater, recently named UK City of Culture for 2017. Osborne knows the HS2 argument remains in the balance, with fears it will drain money from, rather than pump investment into, Birmingham and Manchester. To make the case for other northern transport projects is essential. But despite his efforts, too much focus remains on London and the South-east. House prices are out of control (the Office for Budget Responsibility prefers the term "notably strong") in the capital – in the north, they are flat. According to the think-tank IPPR North, government spending on transport infrastructure is £4,893 per person in London; in the North-east it is £245 a head.
I was initially drawn in by the arguments made by Boris Johnson, in his Tory conference speech, that London's competitiveness is creating jobs across the country. This is true, in a sense – because, as he said, London buses are made in Ballymena, Routemaster destination blinds are printed in Greater Manchester, and cranes destined to crowd London's skyline are manufactured in Derbyshire. But if it were really the case this was helping the whole of the UK, the economy would be more geographically balanced. And it is not. A lot of people outside the capital are, yes, in jobs, but many of them are merely working hard to make London even stronger.
Faced with a difficult question from an interviewer, there are many get-outs for politicians. One of the most irritatingly evasive is "I am not going to provide a running commentary". Everyone does it, but that doesn't make it any less maddening. Nick Clegg was the latest to deploy this when he was asked on his weekly Call Clegg phone-in on LBC whether he had ever taken illegal drugs. The DPM also used it about Lord Rennard in February. David Cameron refused to provide a running commentary on whether Nato was about to bomb Libya, oh, and Tony Blair used it in June 2003 when asked whether there were any WMD in Iraq. Politicians think the "running commentary" line is clever – it isn't, it sounds shifty and evasive.
Out of order
A woman journalist used the word "feisty" to describe younger female colleagues the other day, prompting objections that this shouldn't be used about women. "Feisty" is just about fine, but "racy" is not. This was how the Daily Mail described Karren Brady, one of the most prominent businesswomen of the past 20 years, on its front page as she travelled to China as part of the PM's trade delegation. In a letter to the Mail, Brady complained: "Why describe me as 'racy'? I'm a prominent female delegate on this trip and someone who champions the cause of women. I'm also the dedicated and proud mother of two teenage children who has been in a loving marriage to their father for 18 years. Would a male delegate be described as 'racy'?" Indeed.
Brady is emerging as the frontrunner for the Tory nomination for London Mayor in 2016. Given that Tessa Jowell is considering standing for Labour, it could be an all-female race. Not racy, but very exciting.
Voters might think their MP can table legislation, as a Private Member's Bill, on a particularly important subject outside the Government's agenda. This is true, but if they knew the efforts the Government makes to block them, without explanation, they would be horrified.
A bill to pardon Alan Turing, the Enigma codebreaker who committed suicide in 1954, two years after being prosecuted for homosexuality, was blocked by the cry of "object" from just one MP. It is a ludicrous system, and Lord Dubs, the former Labour MP, is furious. He told the Lords on Friday the blocking of the bill was "absolutely shameful", adding: "The procedure in the Commons is absolutely lacking in total transparency. To object to the Alan Turing Bill was a really shabby thing and the Government should be ashamed of that." No doubt the Government can't give a running commentary.Reuse content