NOW that The Yorkshire Post can expose Theresa May’s latest lip service to the Northern Powerhouse as a sham, the Prime Minister’s successor must scrap the tokenism (and Pacer trains) and offer an unrivalled commitment to transform this region’s economic base.
This much is clear after Northern Powerhouse Minister Jake Berry admitted that his policy brief had insufficient clout just days after being given an expanded remit by Mrs May as she desperately tries to build a legacy on sand out of her Brexit ruins.
His intervention is an early success for the Power Up The North campaign that this newspaper launched on Monday with rival publications – and confirms how 10 Downing Street thought, just last week, that it could fob off the 15 million people who live and work here. They failed.
The background is this. As commuters faced unprecedented misery on the region’s railways last June, and rank complacency from Transport Secretary Chris Grayling, this newspaper first suggested that the Northern Powerhouse Minister should be in the Cabinet.
Subsequent events – notably Mr Grayling’s embarrassing excuses – made us even more convinced that a Cabinet-level champion was needed to maximise the North’s economy which is still worth £343bn a year in spite of decades of under-investment.
And we’re not a lone voice. Editors of more than 30 newspapers and websites concurred when details of the Power Up The North call-to-arms was being finalised last week.
Yet, as this was taking place, Downing Street sent out a pre-emptive statement last Friday which said Mr Berry – part of the team of Ministers at the Ministry of Housing – would have a dual role with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. The wording was oblique but transport, key to the economy here, was not mentioned. Nor reference to the many ministerial roles left vacant due to Brexit-related resignations.
Two Cabinet Ministers – James Brokenshire (Housing) and Greg Clark (Business) – issued supportive comments while the statement gave the impression that Mrs May had been involved, even though this was the week of the Donald Trump state visit and D-Day commemoration. Meanwhile Mr Berry said: “I’m grateful to the Prime Minister for the unwavering support she has given to the Northern Powerhouse.” Really?
And then the truth emerged. On Monday, the Minister – an ally of Tory leadership frontrunner Boris Johnson – tweeted his support for Power Up The North. Thank you. On Tuesday, answering questions in Parliament, he said: “Modesty precludes me from saying that its proposal that the Northern Powerhouse Minister be a full Cabinet position should be considered by all future leaders of the Conservative Party.” So he had read the campaign’s launch editorial? And then, on Wednesday, he went on the attack after accusing the Treasury – the operators of the nation’s purse-strings – of withholding investment from the North because its strict funding criteria still favoured London and the South where more people live and work. No wonder transport investment continues to accelerate faster there, despite the daily difficulties here.
“You have to go beyond just counting the costs and look at the benefit and I think that Cabinet position will enable you to make that change,” Mr Berry told this newspaper. “Some periods in the last two years, it has been a very lonely furrow that I have ploughed driving the Northern Powerhouse on across Government.”
This is revealing in three ways. First, I don’t know what – if anything – was discussed when last week’s so-called ‘promotion’ was signed off. However there’s no evidence yet to point to the Government matching the Power Up The North’s agenda-setting intervention with similar ambition and urgency.
Second, Mr Berry’s candour confirms what Justine Greening, the former Education Secretary, told Parliament on Tuesday – the Treasury is not fit for purpose because it favours pet projects over boosting social mobility in disadvantaged and deprived areas.
Finally, the North could be contributing so much more to Great Britain plc if it had the infrastructure and skills to match its ambition.
The very fact that MPs asked Mrs May at PMQs to take her failed Transport Secretary with her when she leaves office spoke volumes about the price that this region is paying for her decision to downgrade the Northern Powerhouse because she had fallen out with George Osborne, the ex-Chancellor, who had launched this visionary policy agenda exactly five years ago.
In many respects, Britain does not need more Cabinet Ministers. A cull is also needed. For example, the Leaders of the House of Commons and House of Lords, together with the Chief Whip and Cabinet Office Minister, don’t all need to attend when their roles are about process.
Yet, given Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland still have their own Cabinet attendees and full devolution, the North demands its own big-hitter to fight for this region and win back the lost trust of all those deceived by phoney promises made by Theresa May, Chris Grayling and many others. And that time is now.