CONSERVATIVES can never claim to be a One Nation party as long as the gulf between the North and the South and the inequalities it spawns remain unchecked.
Ensuring that we as a Government give the North the tools it needs to flourish and succeed must be a top priority for the next Prime Minister. That is why an agenda which works for the North is central to my campaign to become the next Leader of the Conservative Party.
If I become the first modern day Conservative Prime Minister from the North, representing a Northern seat, then the region will have its most powerful advocate in Cabinet for over a century.
Politicians of all colours have failed to close the gap between North and South. The Conservatives have worked to address this with the Northern Powerhouse. There are many projects across the North which have seen some investment and a measure of local progress.
However, this is not nearly enough as demonstrated by the Power Up The North campaign now being waged by editors across the region on behalf of 15 million readers.
We need to listen to the demands of that campaign and I, for one, am all for powering up the North. Its where I come from and where I will always call home. Now is the time to turbo charge the commitment of the UK as a whole to the North and I am the person to make sure it happens fast.
To start with we need to deliver Brexit. The North voted heavily to leave the EU. Yet the London-centric political establishment has done everything it can to frustrate our vote to leave. As we saw with the level of support the Brexit Party received across the region, the North’s message to Westminster is simple: Just get on with it.
Leaving the EU can bring significant investment to the North, particularly through the creation of free ports which would be a huge boost in jobs an investment in areas like Humberside, Teesside and Merseyside. Once we have left the EU, we will be free to implement pro-market policies. That will provide a genuine and lasting boost to the Northern Powerhouse.
Beyond Brexit, we must act on the clarion call for broader and deeper action across the North. This aligns with the proposals which I have set out on how we develop practical solutions to the biggest challenges facing our country. These include transferring money from the currently bloated overseas aid budget into providing better for schools and the police: restoring social mobility; and delivering a public sector pay guarantee to ensure that we look after workers on whom the whole country depends – many of whom are based in the North.
There are many more specific measures in the Power Up The North campaign which we need to consider, but number one is to build up the North’s infrastructure and this requires investment. I have given the clearest commitment of any candidate in this campaign to scrap HS2. At £56bn and rising, HS2 is taking up too much of our national infrastructure investment. It will be years before it brings its intended benefits to the immediate route, let alone reaching the North.
Scrapping HS2 before we sink any more money into it will immediately free up £45bn for regional infrastructure. Northern Powerhouse Rail is far more important to our regions and would delivering it would be a priority for me. Among the improvements I will guarantee include ensuring we have a city centre stop in the economic sleeping giant of Bradford.
This infrastructure investment must include the Northern rail network, but it must also include our roads as both are critical to ensuring the region is able to attract investment and grow the economy. Equally we cannot make the North competitive if we lag behind in our digital infrastructure and ensure the most rapid access possible to superfast broadband, decent 4G and ultimately 5G coverage.
It is one thing to acknowledge that the North needs investment in its infrastructure, but unless you can point to where it is coming from it is just more warm words. Speaking from the heart and with the accent of a true Northerner, I can say that we have all had our fill of empty rhetoric. It’s time for action on and delivery of these pledges.
My pledge to shift £7bn from the international aid budget to allow £3bn for police and £4bn for schools will have significant benefits for Northern communities. It is a policy that I know will be popular across the North and fits with the campaign’s calls or more investment in schools.
I am sceptical about creating new bodies to look at this issue. What the North certainly doesn’t need is more politicians and talk shop quangos. It’s time now for the talking to stop and the action to begin. That means investment fast.
Charting its present unbalanced course, the UK is like a plane with two engines – but only a single fully functioning one. The Southern engine is operating at full capacity while the Northern one is chronically and unfairly under-powered.
That imbalance means the plane is listing heavily to the South and remains unable to fly straight and true. It is in everyone’s interests, both in the North and South – and indeed throughout the whole of the UK – that we get both engines up to speed so that the nation can soar as one.
Esther McVey is the Tory MP for Tatton and a contender for the Tory leadership. She is the former Work and Pensions Secretary.