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Andrew Vine: North forgotten as Tories talk only to themselves

Theresa May and her husband Philip listen intently at the Tory conference.
Theresa May and her husband Philip listen intently at the Tory conference.
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THERE is little reason to rejoice for the Conservatives as their conference draws to a close tomorrow. And for all of us who live in the North, there has been precious little to get enthusiastic about in what has been said in Birmingham over the last couple of days.

Where are the ideas to give the North a fair deal? Where are the policies to protect, let alone boost, the economy on which millions of people depend? There haven’t been any.

Instead, the entire conference has effectively been an attempt at damage-limitation over the Tory civil war about Brexit.

Yet the economy of the North should have been at the heart of this conference, and needs to be at the forefront of Tory thinking. Yorkshire’s economy generates £110bn a year. That’s larger than 11 EU countries.

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This isn’t money generated solely for Yorkshire. It’s to the benefit of the whole of Britain. It is one of the foundations on which the national economy stands. But we might as well be a foreign country for all the attention paid to us at this conference.

Maybe when she delivers her keynote address tomorrow, Theresa May will spring a surprise and promise the North the support it deserves.

But I’m not holding my breath, because one of the hallmarks of her awkward and beleaguered premiership has been a failure to do anything to close the North-South divide.

It is a measure of how badly the Tories have lost the plot on governing for the benefit of the whole country, instead of giving priority to the already-prosperous South-East, that Jeremy Corbyn was last week able to present Labour as a one-nation party.

Even though his hoary old tax-borrow-and-spend ideas don’t stand up to scrutiny because they would bankrupt the country, he did at least attempt to speak to Britain as a whole.

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The Tories, on the other hand, have fallen into the trap of talking to themselves, and in doing so they are failing the country.

Infighting over Brexit has paralysed this Government and blinded it to every other pressing issue, especially here in the North. As the Conservatives tear themselves apart, and rival factions prepare for a leadership contest, they have been negligent of all else.

It isn’t all about Brexit. Crucial though the outcome of leaving the EU is, the Government has lost sight of the fact that a properly functioning, adequately resourced northern economy is vital to ensuring the success of Britain in whatever future lies ahead.

And in key areas, it is doing nothing to give the North a fair deal.

Transport is the most glaring example. The fiasco on the railways is one of the most miserable failings of any government in modern times. It is not just a matter of inconvenience for countless passengers – though that is bad enough – but a disgraceful neglect of vital infrastructure.

No economy can function effectively if its transport links are not fit for purpose, and the completely inadequate performance of the Transport Secretary, Chris Grayling, in refusing to take responsibility and sort the problems out, is a stain on the Government’s already poor record.

Nor has anything been done to bring the Northern Powerhouse closer to harnessing the strength of the great cities of the North. Warm words from ministers are not enough. Action and resources are required.

Health, education, public services and housing needs are all being neglected. Local authorities across our region are gradually sinking into deep financial trouble because of a lack of funding from the Government and its shameful buck-passing of responsibility for social care.

The business community still has no real clue about the environment it will have to operate in post-Brexit. Its repeated – and increasingly urgent – warnings that clarity is needed have either been ignored or dismissed.

Similarly, agriculture has been left dangling, since what passes for Government policy on food production is, to put it charitably, vague at best.

The need for the North to be given much greater priority in Government thinking has never been more pressing. Brexit potentially poses risks to the traditional industrial areas of the North, especially if there is no deal with the EU.

But they are being forgotten about. The focus of this London-centric Government is on the City.

It was once a proud boast of the Conservatives that they were the real one-nation party, committed to people prospering and reaping the rewards of hard work regardless of where they lived.

If Theresa May attempts to say that is still the case tomorrow, many in the North will be sceptical. We need only point to the mess on the railways, lack of investment and struggling public services to expose how hollow a claim it is.