BORIS JOHNSON knows that the North is inextricably linked to his political fortunes – the first policy speech of his premiership was delivered in Manchester on the theme of regional inequality.
He also appreciates that the trust now placed in him by working class voters must be reciprocated – he acknowledged this during a symbolic weekend visit to Sedgefield, a seat once held by Tony Blair, to meet locals, pull pints and toast his landslide win.
Acknowledging the lifelong Labour supporters in the country’s former industrial heartlands who broke the habits of a lifetime to vote Tory, he told them: “I will repay your trust.”
And now the Prime Minister – or ‘Boris’ to his new-found friends in the North – has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to put the Northern Powerhouse at the front and centre of his new administration as MPs return to Westminster.
As a former mayor of London, he does, in fairness, understand the importance of the regions and praised the “fantastic” Power Up The North campaign that The Yorkshire Post launched earlier this year with more than 30 newspapers.
He knows it can’t be ignored – it has galvanised the North – and he acceded, on becoming Prime Minister in later July, to the campaign’s call for the post of Northern Powerhouse Minister to be elevated to the Cabinet so this region, and the 15 million people who live and work here, have an advocate at the top table of British politics.
But now, as attention turns to Mr Johnson delivering myriad pledges that he made to the people, and the need for him to prove his trustworthiness, he should link these issues by:
* Asking Sir Lindsay Hoyle, the new Speaker, to amend the Commons timetable so the Northern Powerhouse Minister faces 30 minutes of questions from MPs each month.
* Requesting the creation of a dedicated Northern Powerhouse Committee that has the power to question Ministers, civil servants and regional leaders on policy progress like the £39bn Northern Powerhouse Rail scheme and other infrastructure improvements.
* Ordering each Whitehall department to create dedicated teams to tackle regional inequality and publishing regular progress reports so, for example, blue collar families benefit from high-tech jobs of the future.
Now I appreciate that this sounds procedural and the last thing that this country needs is another tier of bureaucracy. However that is not the intention and it is within the capabilities of the existing Whitehall and Westminster machine, if Mr Johnson so desires with his new mandate, to ensure that Northern Powerhouse becomes an equal to Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, all of which have their own dedicated ministries, ministers, question time sessions and select committees.
It would also provide greater clarity to the role of the Northern Powerhouse Minister – Jake Berry, the current incumbent, divides his time between the Housing and Business departments in Whitehall and has only addressed the Commons on four occasions since his appointment nearly six months ago.
And, while deadlock over Brexit, and then the election, delayed progress, Mr Johnson can now stamp his authority while also showing a willingness for his premiership, government and officials to be judged by their actions.
This has been explained to me by senior public servants, and former Cabinet ministers, who say that the prospect of regular Parliamentary scrutiny does, in fact, focus the attention of Ministers and officials.
They said that there would have been a far swifter response to issues, like the record delays on the region’s railways, if the chief executives of rail firms knew that they would have to answer to MPs more frequently. The fact that just 28 per cent of TPE trains, and 40 per cent of Northern services, were on time in the last four weeks shows that existing scrutiny does not work.
They also believe that such a structure will improve cross-government working – most departments, they say, operate in ‘silos’, and so fixated by their own priorities, that they fial to recognise links between transport, jobs, skills, education, poverty and health.
And they also hope that such collaboration will involve regional leaders, and MPs from all parties, in the decision-making process to ensure that the infrastructure and investment injustices, presided over by a successive governments on a wide range of issues, come to a swift halt – along with Northern’s ubiquitous Pacer trains.
Over to you, Prime Minister, if the North is to trust you, to invest the political and economic capital now needed so this region becomes a national and international powerhouse that works for all.