No excuses Boris Johnson if you don’t deliver Brexit and transform the North – Justine Greening

BORIS Johnson’s greatest advantage is to be consistently underestimated. He led the Leave campaign to victory in the 2016 EU referendum and then followed it up with last month’s thumping General Election result.

Prime Minsiter Boris Johnson on a pre-election visit to Stocksbridge.
Prime Minsiter Boris Johnson on a pre-election visit to Stocksbridge.

He demolished Labour’s so-called ‘Red Wall’ of traditional Labour seats across the North, including in the Yorkshire and Humber region. Communities like Rother Valley sent back Conservative MPs to Parliament for the first time, something that seemed inconceivable just a year ago.

You can argue that, in Jeremy Corbyn and Jo Swinson, few Conservative leaders have had weaker opponents to do battle against, but fundamentally Mr Johnson won both the referendum – and also last month’s election – because he was able to sell a vision of a different and better Britain, thriving outside the EU.

Columnist Justine Greening is a former Education Secretary.

It means he now has a big majority in the Commons, and new northern MPs who will want to turn marginal seats into safe Conservative constituencies.

That’s certainly how I saw things when I won my Putney seat from Labour in 2005. By 2015, I had built a 10,000 majority. It takes time, focusing on the right priorities for your community and a lot of hard work. Above all, people expect you to fight your corner for your community.

So how should Mr Johnson put the cement in a political Red Wall that now has so many blue bricks? Easy. Deliver on his vision in practical terms.

Boris Johnson during a pre-election visit to The Yorkshire Post - will he deliver for the North?

He has to show the difference his plans on Brexit and on domestic policy make to people’s day-to-day lives. With a five-year Parliament ahead of him, it’s long enough to make a substantial difference.

Firstly, he sold Brexit to Britain, so now it’s up to the Prime Minister to deliver on the benefits he has told us it can bring. If he makes a hash of it and fails to show a Brexit dividend, the Northern Tory bricks will crumble away.

Voters expect him to deliver on his Brexit promises of how much better things will be for Britain outside the EU. To coin Mr Johnson’s election winning slogan we will “Get Brexit Done” on January 31.

Once we’ve been able to ‘Take Back Control’ – his referendum winning slogan – people will not accept any more excuses from any ministers for inaction because of rules set in Brussels. After January 31, the buck will truly stop with this Prime Minister like no other.

On the economics of Brexit, whatever side of the fence you were on, we can at least move on from Project Fear and finally see Project Reality. Five years should be long enough to see the purported benefits come through from the ‘easiest trade deal in history’, as Liam Fox described it, that Britain strikes with the EU.

It also gives time for all the other many trade deals the UK needs to have in place for our continued trade. And it’s crucial that reassurances to people in Northern Ireland, that the United Kingdom stay intact and there will be no new hard Northern Ireland border, are honoured.

Secondly, and just as importantly, he’ll need to deliver investment and results in the North, if thousands of Labour voters who switched aren’t going to feel betrayed and let down.

In 2017, as Education Secretary, I said we needed to ‘level up Britain’ because ‘talent is spread evenly, but opportunity is not’. It was heartening that Mr Johnson borrowed those phrases in his campaign but now he needs to show he understands what they mean.

And it’s about so much more than simply throwing money at the problem. Investment is part of the solution, but if cash alone could solve this, then Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s Labour Party would have cracked it after the 1997 election.

Regeneration through Enterprise Zones, Regional Growth Funds, City Deals – they’ve all been there to channel investment into left behind communities. Yet poor social mobility persists. Money is only part of the solution. Time is of the essence too. Transport infrastructure investment is absolutely vital but so is improving the day-to-day bus services that people rely on right now in places like Rotherham, where residents see services randomly cancelled with no explanation and little regard for passengers left waiting until the next bus turns up. It’s important for people to see improvement in the short term as well as giving them hope for the long term.

And investment in people matters too. Joined up investment in their education, training, skills and working with local businesses to create job opportunities on the doorstep is just as important, but more complicated to co-ordinate, and if done at all, it tends to happen in a piecemeal, disconnected way.

But taken together it gives us a chance to transform lives and futures for the better, and that’s what this is surely about.

Political vision and rhetoric are one thing. Delivery is another. Mr Johnson and his Government have five years ahead of them, with an unparalleled ability to take decisions, unfettered by Brussels. Having led us to such a pivotal turning point in this country’s history, he will now be judged not on rhetoric but on results like no Government that has gone before. Quite right too.

Justine Greening is a former Cabinet minister. She was born in Rotherham.