What does the Brexit election mean for devolution?

Whilst the Metro Mayor campaigns look set to be eclipsed by the Brexit election, they could nonetheless have a significant effect on how we will be governed after 8th June.

Without a Parliament or Government over the general election campaign, the 6 new Metro Mayors elected on 4th May, together with Sadiq Khan, will arguably (for a month) be the most powerful people in England. Together they will be accountable for 19 million people and will not be afraid to claim they speak for their large electorates.

The snap election inevitably throws up various questions for the devolution agenda. Here are some thoughts and questions to consider:


What effect will the general election have on the mayoral campaigns?

Talk of ‘politics being local’ and egging the importance of the mayoral powers and the associated city-regional combined authorities are less likely to run well on the doorstep. Instead, voters may see the Mayoral elections as an early chance to vote on Theresa May’s government or an opportunity to make a statement on Brexit.

Andrew Carter, Chief Executive of Centre for Cities, reckons turnout will be badly affected, and it’s fair to say that councils and candidates will have a task on their hands simply reminding voters that there will still be a poll on 4th May. On the other hand, a country on election footing means far greater exposure to politics in general.

The mayoral campaigns are more likely to echo the national election, another point made by Carter. Candidates who have been able to campaign on day to day issues such as housing and living standards will now have to voice their opinion on Brexit. For regions that have been heavily dependent on EU funding, like Merseyside, this could be a useful shift of debate. In the West Midlands, where the leave vote was won by some half a million votes, it is a subject Sion Simon MEP will want to avoid. The candidates will move from having half a dozen competitors for media attention, to scores of prospective parliamentary candidates vying for it too.


What role will the new mayors play in the general election?

The six new Metro Mayors will argue they speak for 10 million English citizens, and will immediately be thrust – or throw themselves – into the limelight. If, as expected, Sue Jeffrey in the Tees Valley, Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester and Steve Rotheram in Liverpool City Region win on the 4th May, a Northern band of Labour Metro Mayors could form a powerful lobbying unit. Sion Simon in the West Midlands may join them. They will expect serious commitments to devolution in the Labour manifesto, from a currently lukewarm leadership. Whether a ‘Northern Labour’, as described by Burnham, will form part of a shift towards a less centralised political party system in the UK, or is merely be an aberration due to disunity in the PLP, remains to be seen.

The Conservative Metro Mayors – likely to be James Palmer in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, and possibly Tim Bowles in the West of England and Andy Street in the West Midlands, will also want to see commitments from May and Philip Hammond.

Hammond has a habit of talking of investment in the Midlands Engine and the Northern Powerhouse rather than devolution. Similarly, the Labour party’s proposed £500bn investment fund may make any commitment to devolution look more like one to monetary spending. However, as the Smith Institute’s recent report on devo-housing shows, one of the big constraints for the new administrations is a lack of resources, so any spending commitments in the manifestos would be welcome.

If the Tories fare slightly better than expected, they could end up with three or four of the mayoralties, and Labour with just the two in the North West. If so, a narrative around the interminable decline of Labour will inevitably come to fore. Conversely, a win in the West Midlands and losses of under fifty or sixty in English locals will point to some strong local results in June, give a big morale boost to party members, and provide optimism for a brighter future for Labour post-Corbyn.

Should the Lib Dems win in the West of England – a predominantly Conservative area – it would no doubt be a boost to their ‘fightback’ narrative, and Stephen Williams, an ex-minister, would likely have some sway over Lib Dem devolution policies policy.


What about the MPs who are standing for Metro Mayor?

Andy Burnham has already announced that he will be standing down as MP for Leigh. On the other hand, Liverpool City Region’s Steve Rotheram has submitted his papers for candidacy in Walton. If he wins (and he is strong favourite), he has signalled his intention to stand down from the constituency. With candidates for the general election needing to be confirmed four weeks before the date of the poll, that would theoretically give the Liverpool Walton MP around three days to do so.


What about devolution policy?

All the candidates have transformative ambitions for their city regions, and with manifesto pledges far beyond their formal powers, they will have been hoping for some high profile activity once in post. With the general election taking up the media’s attention, they may well postpone some of the big policy announcements till after June 8th.

Of course, the early election does threaten some areas of devolution legislation. It is no secret in Westminster that Chris Grayling is no friend of transport devolution. With its progress likely to be stalled for the foreseeable future, there is the danger that the Bill gets kicked into the long grass. However, fears that the Buses Bill would be severely delayed were assuaged when the bill passed through the Commons on Wednesday.


What happens after 8th June?

In order to align with general elections, the next round of mayoral elections had been set for 2020. With the next general election now due in 2022, ministers will be considering doing the same for the Metro Mayors. This would of course be welcomed by the new mayors who are now able to serve a full term, but also by other regions looking for devolution deals who were facing the prospect of having to wait until 2020 to have an elected mayor and associated deal, such as Sheffield City Region.

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