The Prime Minister’s propensity for U turns and muddled thinking is well illustrated in Downtown MD Frank McKenna’s blog this week.
I want to concentrate an a particularly egregious example of that relating to the levelling up policy.
Having promised his new Red Wall voters that the unbalanced economy of England would be sorted by devolving power and providing resources for the North, Johnson has “failed miserably in translating a political soundbite into a deliverable programme”. Those are the words of a report today from the Commons Business Committee.
It only took one by election defeat to see a government once more retreating from its promises to the North on devolution. We had it under New Labour when Tony Blair lost interest in regional devolution in England once Scotland and Wales were done. We saw it under Theresa May when she sacked George Osborne and the voltage went out of the Northern Powerhouse.
Now Johnson is at it with the striking phrase in a speech last week about not wanting to “decapitate the tall poppies.” Here’s what’s behind the Prime Minister’s thinking using that phrase. The people of Amersham have fallen out of love with us because of HS2, planning and all this stuff about helping the North. HS2 is being built, can’t do much about that. Planning, may have to U turn on that. Promises to the North? That’s the easy one to compromise on. So now instead of the government having a laser focus on sorting the major problems of the North, devolution and regeneration initiatives will be weakened by a need to show that the South is not being left behind.
To be fair money is being injected into transport schemes and through the Towns Fund. But as the Business Select Committee says it is all coming from disparate pots across government with no one department clearly in charge. Everything from obesity initiatives and police funding to bus stops and football pitches is all described as “levelling up”.
The key finding of the committee is that regional and local devolution is “incoherent and inconsistent”. The mishmash of councils, mayors, Northern Powerhouse and Local Enterprise Partnerships, not to mention counties like Lancashire and Cheshire which have no real devolution structure, needs sorting.
There is meant to be a White Paper in the autumn. I suspect it will be weak and an effort to kick the can towards the next election. What it ought to do is provide a strong regional tier of government accountable through elected assemblies with unitary local government below it in the shires and powerful mayors for the conurbations. They should have big, devolved budgets (larger in the North and Midlands than the South) to spend on skills, housing, roads, and rail. They should report to the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government.
BRADY STILL IN CHARGE.
It was good to see Altrincham’s Sir Graham Brady retain his place as Chair of the 1922 Committee. It is an important sounding board for backbench Tories and Brady has been prepared to openly criticise the Prime Minister on lockdown.
An attempt to silence him with a government stooge candidate failed and it is to be hoped he will be in place for the centenary of the committee next year. In 1922 they brought down Liberal Prime Minister Lloyd George who led a Coalition with the Tories. They concluded his time was up. Perhaps history will repeat itself.