Speaking to The Yorkshire Post’s political podcast Pod’s Own Country this week, former Cabinet minister Jake Berry said his new group bringing together more than 70 northern MPs was acting as “a collective way of new northern MPs and old hands to work together” to move away from the slogan of levelling up and deliver real change.
But he said that without devolution, perhaps even with powers to set a portion of income tax or vary national insurance rates, was a key part of delivering on election promises.
The Government’s high-profile falling out with Greater Manchester metro mayor Andy Burnham over coronavirus support has done little to enamour the former Labour MP to those in Whitehall, with Mr Burnham being left out of Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s list of thank yous.
And it was noted that in a speech to the Great Northern Conference earlier this year Mr Johnson failed to mention the creation of more mayors, despite previously making it the cornerstone of such addresses.
But Downing Street this week insisted Mr Johnson was still fully committed to the levelling up agenda.
And Mr Berry, one of Mr Johnson’s allies who backed his leadership bid, said: “I know and believe that he is absolutely determined to set in train a series of events that will transform people's lives.”
But he said that “we're going to need to see a big change from this Government” and that “with this North/South divide, it's just become such an urgent issue because of how deep Covid has sunk its claws into the North’s economy.”
Mr Berry was the Northern Powerhouse Minister under Mr Johnson until February, but there is now no standalone cabinet role for the job, instead the brief has been taken on by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps.
Now unleashed on the backbenches, Mr Berry is heading up the Northern Research Group (NRG) collective, who have already been acting as a critical friend to Mr Johnson over the tiering system of coronavirus restrictions and its impact on the North.
“No one should be surprised that we've kind of come together and gone, ‘you know what, we were elected on a compelling vision to level up the North and actually we can do this better together’,” he said.
“No one needs help to speak up for their own area, I don't have to help Mark Eastwood speak up for Dewsbury, he's a brilliant guy to do it. I don't need any help speaking up for Rossendale and Darwen in Lancashire.”
And he said the group was acutely aware of where their votes came from.
“ I do not work for the Prime Minister,” he said. “I do not work for the Conservative Party. I work for the people of Rossendale and Darwin, and you could say that for Philip Davis in Shipley, for Mark Eastwood in Dewsbury, colleagues across the whole of Yorkshire, that they work for the people who live in the North of England, actually.
“And our job and why we've come together is to say, we have to be part of a government that is going to deliver for the North of England.”
And he added: “By working together, using our collective voice, a bit like a sort of trade union for MPs with collective bargaining, we can really make sure that we get what we need and deserve across the North of England.”
One part of that, he said, was keeping so-called levelling up - closing the UK’s regional inequalities - at the top of the agenda.
“This issue, which was really important at the last election, has gone from important to urgent,” he said.
“And I think what we need to see from this Government next year is a bit of a step change on this North/South agenda.
“I don't just think incremental changes here, the odd fund here to invest in towns is going to be enough, and I think we need a bit of an attitude change.”
The Chancellor’s Spending Review earlier this month revealed a new Levelling Up Fund of £4bn, which Mr Berry said he welcomed and would “transform communities.”
But it was not enough, he said.
“It's £6m per constituency, if you divide it across England, that is not a lot of money. We need fundamental change to the way we do government to transform the economy of the North of England, we've got to remember who we work for, and we've got to be the agents of that change.
“The sort of step change I want to see in the new year is, let's not talk about levelling up, that's a slogan, let's change the way we do business in government, I want to hear the whoosh as international investment comes to the North of England.”
Mr Berry said Mr Johnson was “uniquely placed, having been Mayor of London, to understand the power of giving people control of their lives and driving the economy”, and he felt the Prime Minister still had the same ambition seen during the 2019 election.
But he said: “The way out of this pandemic, which has hit the North harder than any other part of the country, in my opinion, isn't cutting public spending, the way out of it isn't increasing people's taxes, it's about creating a wealth economy across the North of England.
“And I think what we need to do is for the Government to come forward with that radical program for the North of England if we're truly going to deliver on our levelling up agenda.”
Part of that included a commitment to devolution, in which Mr Berry said he was a “big believer”.
He said: “This is somewhere where I think I do really disagree with where the Government is at the moment, I think it's hugely important. I think we have seen this slipped down the agenda slightly.”
He said views on devolution even within the NRG were mixed, but he said: “We can't put the genie back in the bottle.”
He said: “Whether we like it or not, this Conservative government and the party I have the privilege of being a member of are the fathers of English devolution.
“Now 50 per cent of the North of England is covered by devolution deals which were created initially by George Osborne and continued by Theresa May and Boris Johnson, so we've got to go for this.
“There's no way you can stand in Yorkshire, or West Yorkshire when you have your elected mayor and say, ‘oh, you know, we've changed our mind, actually we don't think Yorkshire people should determine what happens in Yorkshire, it should be the Government again.’
“It is our policy. We need to embrace it. We need to own it.”
He added: “I think the problem with devolution isn't that we have done too much devolution, the real problem is that we haven't done enough and the mayors we have don't have enough power and responsibility.”
But he did say that devolution needed to change so “mayors aren't just a sort of Father Christmas character who goes around spending Government money, and never has the pain of making difficult decisions or raising it”.
He said: “We need these powerful northern voices to look to drive the North’s economy and I will be really radical, if you look at Wales and Scotland, they have the ability to set income tax.
“I'd like to see areas in the North of England which have a mayor or large areas in the North of England, free to do things like set their own portion of income tax, for them to set it locally, to cut it, or increase it, but that money stays locally.”
And he said doing that would allow the North to compete globally.
“The Government can't do that for us,” he said. “But they can give us the tools we need to deliver and in truth, that is what is going to deliver northern prosperity, not a Levelling Up Fund as welcome as it is.
“It's got to be the North of England having a thriving economy, which we control.”
He said: “I just think politics has changed, I think Whitehall is playing catch up.
“I think there's still a real feeling in Whitehall devolution is just those troublesome Northerners kicking off again.
“And they just need to wake up, that actually, you know, the way this country is run and is going to be run in the future has changed, and we can't go backwards. So we just need to go forward. But we need to go forward at pace.”