NOW we know where George Osborne’s priorities lie...
As his political and economic reputation comes under intense scrutiny, what did the Chancellor do?
He flew to California for the Super Bowl, American football’s annual jamboree.
But it does not end here. Sponsors of America’s sporting event of the year include global internet giant Google whose sweetheart tax deal in the UK – it paid a derisory £130m for 10 years of back taxes – is proving so embarrassing and troubling to Mr Osborne. And it raises more questions about the Chancellor’s judgment when the much-vaunted Northern Powerhouse, his flagship policy, is running out of steam as scepticism grows this side of the Pennines.
For, while the concept certainly applies to Manchester, where Mr Osborne’s political roots rest, and where the initiative was launched in June 2014, a series of short-sighted decisions has led to the policy losing both credibility and confidence here in Yorkshire.
If the Chancellor had visited Yorkshire rather than the “golden state”, he would have discovered a county that feels betrayed since the election.
Why? The closure of the Sheffield regional office of the Department of Business, Industry and Skills; under-investment in flood defences; the transfer of photographic exhibits from Bradford’s National Media Museum back to London; a reluctance to safeguard the remnants of the steel industry and delays to the advent of smart tickets on our railways.
I could go on. These are just five examples. There are countless others. But the direction of travel is still the same after the embarrassment of last year’s hold-up to the electrification of the TransPennine railway – London-centric policy-making which threatens to widen the North-South divide, with a few inducements for friends in Manchester.
Of course it would be remiss not to acknowledge that Greater Manchester has embraced the concept of elected mayors to deliver the Chancellor’s devolution deal. In contrast Yorkshire’s town halls are still at loggerheads with the Treasury, which favours a deal that revolves around the Leeds City Region, and the Department of Communities and Local Government which, quite rightly, wants the West, North and East Ridings to work in unison.
Yet the fact remains that it is Mr Osborne who controls this agenda – and the purse-strings – and it is the same Mr Osborne who is losing the confidence of respected business leaders like Jamie Martin, MD of law firm of Ward Hardaway, who spoke for many with this critique 10 days ago: “There is a sense that some of the steam has gone out of the Northern Powerhouse.
He added: “Progress on the devolution front, particularly in Yorkshire, has been slow and it would be fair to say that a degree of cynicism has crept in to people’s thinking when it comes to the Government putting money behind its ambitions.”
Mr Martin is right, as Tory strategists speculate whether Business Secretary Sajid Javid may be better placed than Mr Osborne to succeed David Cameron. The belief that the Northern Powerhouse is a token PR exercise is highlighted by a Government forward planning document which, helpfully, reveals major speeches being planned. This includes a “Northern Powerhouse ministerial starburst” in April ahead of the initiative’s second anniversary. A “starburst”? What is this? A kind of sweetener to keep critics quiet? I’d say it’s some kind of wheeze that Mr Osborne picked up at the Super Bowl but the briefing document was, in fact, written before this ill-advised jaunt.
What it is, however, is evidence about the extent to which the Government puts political spin before economic substance and why the Chancellor must use next month’s Budget to regain the initiative.
As such, Mr Osborne does need to make a symbolic announcement – such as moving Northern Powerhouse civil servants out of London and to Sheffield to offset the decision of the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills to move out of the South Yorkshire city because “the phones and computers don’t work” in the words of local MP Louise Haigh.
But he also needs to signal an intention to fast-track many of the transport improvements that he promised in his 2014 pre-election Autumn Statement – such as an upgraded railway from Hull to Liverpool, the widening of the A1, the dualling of the A64, public transport improvements in Leeds and improved access to Hull’s docks.
With Mayor of London Boris Johnson itching to build two new road tunnels, there is a narrative that Yorkshire is playing second fiddle to both the capital and Greater Manchester. This needs to change, and it is in Mr Osborne’s interests to do so. For, if he does find a way to give the green light to a transport revolution in Yorkshire, the resulting jobs dividend can only be to the advantage of the whole country and the Chancellor’s credibility.
The question is whether the Northern Powerhouse is still a priority for him – or whether he is more concerned with Google, whose indefensible tax deal lessens the money available to invest in Yorkshire’s creaking road and rail infrastructure. Time will tell.