Tom Richmond: Where is our own Boris to pull Yorkshire together?

WHEN David Cameron became Prime Minister in 2010, he said there was no need for a designated 'Minister for Yorkshire' because the Tory leader wanted every member of his top team to be a champion for this county.

Mayor of London Boris Johnson. Which leader is going to pull their weight in Yorkshire?

As he abolished the regional development agencies, Mr Cameron also wound up the network of regional ministers set up by Gordon Brown – and which saw Doncaster’s Dame Rosie Winterton, now Labour’s chief whip, tasked with speaking up for Yorkshire.

Fast forward five years and Mr Cameron’s approach is looking very short-sighted – all the evidence points to the North-South divide widening still further and the PM’s failure to honour promises to flooding victims coming to define his regard for this region.

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I’m afraid Mr Cameron seems intent on being a one man government in the mould of Tony Blair – one reason why his European negotiations lack substance, or ambition, is because he flits from issue to issue. Three of the past four weeks have started with fleeting events on Muslim integration, prisons and mental health – either he doesn’t trust the Ministers concerned to smile to the cameras or he doesn’t wish to share the limelight.

It does not end here. Chancellor George Osborne’s much-vaunted Northern Powerhouse is running on empty outside of Manchester; Business Secretary Sajid Javid, now being tipped to succeed Mr Cameron, is allowing his department’s regional office to shut in Sheffield while presiding over the steel industry’s decline and Environment Secretary Elizabeth Truss would have resigned by now over her mismanagement of flood defences, and rural affairs per se, if there was any honour left in politics.

Of course the Prime Minister will point out that there are Ministers tasked with empowering the English regions – Jim O’Neill at the Treasury, Greg Clark at the Department of Communities and Local Government (DCLG) and James Wharton who is in charge of the Northern Powerhouse, while two Yorkshire MPs, Andrew Jones and Robert Goodwill, are junior transport ministers.

Yet this misses the point. Their responsibilities are to the whole country and the make-up of Mr Cameron’s Cabinet is notable for the absence of any Yorkshire MP or peer at the top table or, indeed, Minister with an English seat north of Tatton (the Chancellor’s Cheshire constituency). The last time that this occurred was in the early 1990s when John Major’s inner circle was devoid of white rose representation until William Hague, the then Richmond MP, was parachuted into Cardiff to become Welsh Secretary in 1995.

Why does this matter now? The absence of a senior statesman to speak up for Yorkshire, means a very piecemeal approach to policy-making – compounded by the impasse over devolution with the Treasury wishing to do a deal with the Leeds City Region conglomerate and the DCLG pressing for the West, North and West Ridings to become a single powerhouse.

Even though South Yorkshire political and business leaders struck a devolution deal with North Nottinghamshire and North Derbyshire, it is vital that the rest of this county sticks together and finds a way of creating a dynamic leadership structure which can focus on those issues like transport infrastructure, inward investment and skills training which transcend council boundaries.

Not only will this prevent the cost of governance spiralling out of control – just imagine the cost of rival directly-elected mayors for different parts of the region – but it will ensure that the Mayor of Greater Yorkshire will enjoy the same level of clout as Boris Johnson in London or the First Ministers of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland respectively.

Like it or not, the likes of Mr Johnson – or Nicola Sturgeon north of the border – have become national politicians in their own right. Without them, and the ground work of their predecessors Ken Livingstone and Alex Salmond, London and Scotland would be much the poorer.

Yet, if this region’s councils and businesses choose to go their separate ways because they can’t see the bigger picture, the scenario will be this: local mayors going on television to argue over funding and policy priorities, rather than fighting for Yorkshire’s future.

Not only will it vindicate Mr Cameron’s observation last September when he said “We just thought people in Yorkshire hated everyone else – we didn’t realise they hated each other so much”, but it will make it even harder for Yorkshire’s case to not only be heard but be taken seriously nationally and internationally.

What is unfathomable is why it is taking so long for this county’s leaders to recognise this at a time when the economic recovery in this region is still sluggish. Tourism supremo Sir Gary Verity has shown how it is possible to maximise the value of the “Yorkshire” brand; it now needs an individual from politics or business to do likewise.

As such, David Cameron is right – a Minister for Yorkshire is an indulgence too far. But, given the direction of travel on devolution, there does now need to be a Mayor of Greater Yorkshire, preferably steeped in the business of creating jobs and wealth, to ensure that this county does not become an economic or political backwater. Now who is up for the job? There must be someone...