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Theresa May hasn’t taken the Northern Powerhouse seriously – George Osborne and Andy Burnham could change that

Following Brexit the UK will need to work doubly hard if the economy is not to become fatally stagnant 

Will Gore
Monday 28 August 2017 13:36 BST
Osborne, having departed the Commons for a life in journalism, has retained his enthusiasm for the Northern Powerhouse
Osborne, having departed the Commons for a life in journalism, has retained his enthusiasm for the Northern Powerhouse (PA)

Central government's fixation with the unique needs of London remains a problem for this country. True, the UK's economy needs a buoyant capital. But arguably it is the Londoncentricty of the political establishment that has – more than anything else – led to the continuing disconnect between Britain's premier city and the rest of the country.

The vote to leave the EU was driven in significant part by the feeling beyond London that the economy was not working in the interests of those who reside outside the south-east. After she became Prime Minister, Theresa May made an immediate point of saying she would work in the interests of all the citizens of the United Kingdom – continuing, she said, in the 'One Nation' footsteps of David Cameron.

What people in Doncaster or Llanelli or Glasgow might have made of Theresa May's remarks is an interesting question. Cameron had, they might agree, overseen a policy of austerity that had impacted on people across the country – though it is highly likely that they would regard London as having escaped the worst of the economic fallout (and there is some truth in that perception, however simplistic it is – not least in terms of the relative success of the financial sector to bounce back from the crash of 2008).

Still, a promise by the new PM to focus on the needs of people across the UK might have sounded like a suitable response to the kick that voters outside London had given to the bulk of their political masters in the EU referendum.

A year on and, after a disastrous general election, that commitment to stand up for all citizens sounds increasingly hollow. Inevitably, the details of Britain's withdrawal from the European Union are dominating thoughts across government: ministers have their eyes turned to Brussels, not to Bradford or Burnley. And those in business and industry who wish to bend the ear of the officials and MPs who are overseeing the Brexit process largely do so from London.

Last week's moment in the sun for the Northern Powerhouse was emblematic of the Government's failure to carry through its One Nation promise.

Osborne, having departed the Commons for a life in journalism, has retained his enthusiasm for the Northern Powerhouse (chairing the Northern Powerhouse Partnership) and made a very public plea for the Government to back the proposals he first gave the go ahead to when he was Chancellor. The Prime Minister, caught on the hop, sought to reassure 'the north' that the Government remains committed to investment in infrastructure.

Yet transport secretary Chris Grayling managed to cause outrage when he wrote in an article for the Yorkshire Post that “the success of northern transport depends on the north itself”. This may have been well-intentioned but he left himself open to the charge that he was effectively abdicating responsibility. After all, it was only last month that he indicated u-turns on electrification and other rail infrastructure plans between Leeds and Manchester – following up that blow with confirmation that the Government wished to press ahead with expensive Crossrail 2 in London.

It is true to say that the railways across Britain have suffered from decades of under-investment: in part a consequence of historic misjudgements about likely demographic changes in Britain's cities. That trend has been reversed in the last twenty years – but it is plainly the south-east and London which has benefited the most.

The presence of Osborne as a continued thorn in the Prime Minister's side certainly adds spice to the present battle between north and south for future infrastructure projects. The recent election of Andy Burnham as mayor of Manchester is likely to be – in the longer-term – of more relevance. Here is a senior, experienced politician, in a senior political role whose mandate the PM would kill for and whose agenda is purely and simply to work for those who elected him. He can push the case for northern investment in a sustained way. He and Osborne could, perhaps ironically, make for powerful allies.

Yet their power derives ultimately from the fact that the arguments for greater investment in the north of England are sound. Better rails links beyond just those envisaged by HS2 would transform the ability of business in northern cities to work together and to grow.

The Government on the other hand is at sixes and sevens. Theresa May says good things but her authority has been fatally undermined by the disaster of the election. In Grayling, she has a transport secretary who has shown little understanding of his brief. He previously left the justice department in a mess and shows no sign of making a better fist of things this time round. As for the cabinet's big beasts, Brexit is the only thing in their sights.

The irony of course is that after Brexit, the UK will need to work doubly hard if the economy is not to become fatally stagnant. A properly-funded revival of northern power would help, not hinder, that process – it would also help to quell the resentment that so many ordinary people in this country still feel towards London's political elites.

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