Former chancellor George Osborne has said that Theresa May had a “wobble” over his Northern Powerhouse project after becoming Prime Minister.
Mr Osborne’s comment, as he launched a new think-tank to drive the scheme forward, is the clearest indication yet that he had to fight to keep his flagship policy on track after being sacked from the Government in July.
He announced that he has recruited the former mayor of New York, billionaire businessman Michael Bloomberg, to advise the powerful new elected “metro” mayors being created in city regions including Manchester, Liverpool and Sheffield.
Mr Osborne will chair the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, an independent group, including politicians and business leaders, to help push the agenda of greater powers and investment for the regions to boost jobs and growth.
The future of the initiative, launched by Mr Osborne in 2014, came under question after Mrs May’s arrival in 10 Downing Street in July.
She initially appeared reluctant to use the phrase “Northern Powerhouse”, speaking instead of a broader nationwide industrial strategy, rather than a regional focus solely on the north.
And senior Labour politicians in the north have recently spoken of Whitehall briefings casting doubt on the new Prime Minister’s commitment to the agenda.
Mr Osborne told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I think, to be honest, there was a little bit of a wobble when we had the new administration about whether they were still committed to the concept of the Northern Powerhouse.”
He added: “I’m the first to say we need economic development across the whole of the country. I sweated blood to get a mayor for Birmingham. That was one of the most difficult things I pulled off in office. I’m passionate about building out the engine of the West Midlands.
“But in the North of England, there is a particular opportunity because the cities are close together.
“The Northern Powerhouse Partnership that we are creating will be led by the business community, it will have Labour and Conservative civic leaders involved in it.
“And I can tell you today that the former mayor of New York, Mike Bloomberg, is going to work with the Northern Powerhouse Partnership to help the newly-elected mayors next year get the best experience from around the world to make a success of governing in this part of the country. To have someone of his experience involved in this is a great start.”
The Northern Powerhouse aims to devolve powers and money from Whitehall to northern city regions in a bid to boost their economic performance.
Plans included new investment in north-south high-speed rail, HS2, and an east-west version, HS3, linking the belt of northern cities from Liverpool to Hull, via Manchester and Leeds.
The plans also included the election of ‘metro’ mayors for bigger city regions, including for Manchester, Liverpool and Sheffield.
But Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram, both MPs and Labour’s candidates for the mayoral elections in Manchester and Liverpool, recently warned Mrs May that pulling the plug on the “Northern Powerhouse” agenda would be “as big a betrayal as the 1980s when Margaret Thatcher pulled the plug on our industries”.
Mr Osborne insisted: “The Northern Powerhouse is here to stay.”
He said: “When I launched the idea of Northern Powerhouse I said I would work tirelessly with anyone and everyone to make it a reality.
“But even I have been taken aback by the huge support it’s attracted, across political parties, businesses and communities.
“In the space of just two years, we’ve created powerful new mayors, committed to huge new transport and science projects, and attracted investment from around the world.
“There’s a real excitement now in the north about what we can achieve if we work together.
“I don’t want us to lose that. That’s why I’m so pleased major businesses, civic leaders and others have worked with me to create this new Northern Powerhouse Partnership. I’m also glad that the Government has given its support.”
Sajid Javid MP, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, said: “This Government realises the huge untapped potential of our great northern towns and cities. That is why I warmly welcome the launch of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership.
“I hope it will become an important part of the debate and help us to do all we can to further boost jobs, growth and opportunities in the north of England.”
Ed Cox, director of the Institute of Public Policy Research North (IPPR North), said: “It remains to be seen whether this new think-tank will develop an inclusive approach to the Northern economy, because to date, George Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse has been too narrowly focused on big cities and metro mayors - vital as these are, they will not address the economic and social challenges raised by the Brexit vote.”