'Give the North repatriated EU powers after Brexit', says Metro Mayor Ben Houchen

Ben Houchen, 31, was elected Tees Valley Metro Mayor in May 2017.
Ben Houchen, 31, was elected Tees Valley Metro Mayor in May 2017.
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Britain’s regions should be given powers repatriated from the EU immediately after Brexit to ensure the entire country feels like it is “taking back control”, a northern metro mayor has said.

Tees Valley Metro Mayor Ben Houchen said Brexit provides a “huge opportunity” to rebalance power across the country.

But he spoke as the Conservative Party continued its open war over the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, with Chancellor Philip Hammond accusing Boris Johnson of pursuing a “fantasy world” Brexit with his alternative to Theresa May’s Chequers plan.

The broadside came on day two of the Tories’ conference in Birmingham, which has been dominated by splits over Brexit.

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But Mr Houchen identified an opportunity which he said could help the Conservatives win parliamentary seats in the North and regain power after the next election.

He told a Policy Exchange fringe event at the Birmingham conference: “Devolution is a big key to winning voters, which I think George Osborne did very well in instigating.

“There is a huge opportunity here through Brexit, that some of those powers that are being repatriated through the Brexit process we need to be careful don’t get stuck in Whitehall, they get devolved out not just to our devolved administrations but also to our devolved regions.

“There’s a huge opportunity to be able to sell Brexit, not just repatriating powers to London, but actually saying taking back control to the regions, to local politicians so decisions and power is exercised closer to the individual than ever before.”

It came as Mr Hammond gave the Prime Minister’s Chequers plan a “high chance” of success, despite it being rejected by the EU in its current form and the conference so far being dominated by Brexiteers’ calls to “chuck” the proposals.

Mr Johnson, who will not speak from the main hall this year after quitting the Cabinet in protest at Chequers in July, will today address Brexiteer members and activists at a hotly anticipated fringe event.

The Chancellor yesterday became the latest Cabinet member to criticise the ex-Foreign Secretary, with the most outspoken attack in what appears to be a coordinated campaign.

In a round of broadcast interviews, Mr Hammond was repeatedly asked whether Mr Johnson could ever become Prime Minister, and stated several times: “I don’t believe that will happen.”

He told Sky News: “Of course, Boris is a big personality, nobody is denying that. What I’m saying is that the business of government is a process of attention to detail, follow-through, lots of hard work.

“It isn’t just about making flamboyant statements and big announcements, it’s about getting things done.”

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He dismissed Mr Johnson’s call for the UK to negotiate a “super-Canada” free trade agreement with the EU.

“It isn’t about taking back control, it’s about fantasy world,” Mr Hammond told ITV’s Good Morning Britain, arguing that the EU had made clear that a Canadian-style free trade agreement covering the whole UK was not on the table, as Northern Ireland could not be included.

Meanwhile current Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt was criticised by European politicians and diplomats after comparing the EU to the Soviet Union.

In a Sunday speech which was interpreted as a pitch for the Tory leadership, Mr Hunt accused Brussels of seeking to “punish” Britain for wanting to leave the EU and compared it to the USSR trying to stop its citizens leaving.

The comment was denounced as “unworthy of a British Foreign Secretary” by the former head of the UK’s diplomatic service, Lord Ricketts, while his successor as the Foreign Office’s Permanent Secretary, Sir Simon Fraser, described it as a “shocking failure of judgment”.

German Europe minister Michael Roth told the Foreign Secretary: “Sorry, Jeremy Hunt, the EU is no prison!”

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A European Commission spokesman said: “I would say, respectfully, that we would all benefit, and in particular foreign affairs ministers, from opening a history book from time to time. That’s the only comment I have.”

And Estonia’s ambassador in London, Tiina Intelmann, described Mr Hunt’s comments as “insulting” to those who lived under Soviet domination before the collapse of the communist regime in 1991.

Elsewhere, former Brexit Secretary David Davis accused Mr Hammond of using forecasts he knew were inaccurate during preparations for a no-deal Brexit to use as “weapons” against Eurosceptics who want a harder withdrawal from the EU.

Mr Davis’s replacement as Brexit Secretary, Dominic Raab, meanwhile conceded that the Chequers exit plan is not everything he wanted - but told party members there had to be “compromises” with the EU.