We have a Tory party likely to increase its majority despite seven years of punishing austerity; an opposition with the unenviable (and unequalled) record of decreasing its vote share in three consecutive elections; Brexit negotiations in train likely to be the most significant event in British foreign policy since the Second World War and, with the election of Metro Mayors, the potential for a new era in local government. In this shifting and changing political landscape – who wins?
If you didn’t manage to get along to DevoConnect’s #GE17, Metro Mayors and Brexit: Who Wins? Soirée to listen to political commentators answer this question, you missed a treat. Gill Morris, Chief Executive of DevoConnect, Kevin Maguire, Associate Editor of the Daily Mirror; Heather Jameson, Editor of the MJ; Lionel Zetter, Chair of the PRCA and Lord Jim O’Neill of Gatley, former Commercial Secretary of the Treasury all gave us their thoughts and predictions. For starters:
The ‘Northern Powerhouse’ still defies easy definition. The cluster of urban areas around Manchester, or ‘Man-Sheff-Leeds-Pool’, which are closer together than the length of the Central Line, was how Lord O’Neill described it. If the eight million people here acted as a single economic region, that would be a ‘gamechanger for the UK’, and the Northern Powerhouse a reality, according to O’Neill. Kevin Maguire highlighted the perception in much of the North that devolution was just a way of the Tories devolving responsibility for austerity. If devolution is to engage the areas outside of these economic hubs, such as the North East, a way of addressing regional inequalities needs to be central to the offer.
The personality of the Metro Mayors themselves will define the success of the agenda. The six new Metro Mayors’ ability to sell themselves to their electorates will be key to the longevity of the role. Turnout in London’s mayoral elections has risen since the first vote in 2000 because ‘Ken’, ‘Boris’ and ‘Sadiq’ managed to promote themselves as much as their centrist politics. As Heather Jameson said, by taking 63% of the votes in Greater Manchester (where Labour took around 45% of the vote share in the 2015 General Election), Andy Burnham has already demonstrated his ability to do this.
Devolution is the solution to (the roots of) Brexit. Last June’s vote told us some hard truths about the state of UK politics: voters felt detached from decisions that affected their lives and powerless to alter what went on in Brussels and Whitehall, so much so that they were happy to vote to leave the EU. Of course, the irony is, as highlighted by Jameson, that the source of this powerlessness was frequently not Brussels but Westminster. Devolution allows local government to demonstrate its ability to deliver housing, improved transport and better health & social care and in doing so presents the answer to at least some of the problems that gave birth to Brexit.
Devolution is here to stay. With victories in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough and the West of England, a hairsbreadth margin in the West Midlands and a shock victory in the Tees Valley; there will be four Tory mayors banging on the Prime Minister’s door for further devolution. May will struggle to parry them off as she might have hoped with Labour mayors. With both Labour and the Conservatives having a stake in devolution’s future, don’t expect devolution to disappear anytime soon.
Expect to see May back in Number 10 but not with the majority she wants. The local election results were a mixed bag for the Conservatives. The Liberal Democrat ‘fightback’ failed to materialise, but despite UKIP votes haemorrhaging to the Tories, the night was not as bad for Labour as many had feared. If the local elections are to be replicated in June, the Conservatives are heading for a 40 – 60 seat majority rather than the 160 seat one that the polls are predicting: a healthy majority but hardly a landslide. Barnstorming successes in the Greater Manchester and (albeit to a slightly lesser extent) Liverpool City Region means that, come what may, the socialist republic of the North West will survive.
Majority or not, Brexit is going to define May as Prime Minister. With two months of the two-year Article 50 countdown now overrun by election fever, the clock is ticking for Brexit negotiations. While the claim that the larger majority, the stronger the negotiating hand may be nothing more than election propaganda, if the Tories were to increase their majority even slightly in June, May would gain some breathing space from MPs pushing for a hard Brexit. Doubtless, she’ll need it. As much as Lord O’Neill stressed that Macron and his economic advisers may not be out to punish the UK, there are those in Brussels that are. Expect to see no changes to the Offices of State or the Brexit Trinity – Johnson, Fox and Davis; May wants stability but perhaps more importantly, she doesn’t want to lose her scapegoats.