What the new cabinet means for the regions and English devolution


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The question of what a Boris Johnson premiership means for anything is a vexing question. Most likely through tight-lipped prudence, Johnson’s policy priorities have remained opaque. His promises to Conservative MPs have swelled the ranks of his supporters — one journalist quipped that with all the guarantees given to parliamentary colleagues, the Johnson cabinet would be the largest in history – and his relative quiet on policy has led fellow Tories to fill in the blanks with wishful thinking. Former detractors and lukewarm pessimists have joined the Prime Ministerial bandwagon, eyeing the scraps at the table.

But it’s now the morning after the night before. The reshuffle was – it has been repeated – the most ruthless in recent history. But its efficiency should be noted. Any fears of a bumbling and botched series of exits was quickly allayed by the sheer speed and brutality of yesterday’s appointments. This is a war cabinet, hell-bent on leaving the European Union by 31st October and winning a General Election after that. Heavy hitting (and some less heavy-hitting) Brexiteers have been brought back in. Some former-Remainers who backed Johnson, like Amber Rudd, have kept their posts. But the lamb’s blood on the door hasn’t saved everyone; James Brokenshire, the Housing, Communities, and Local Government Secretary – of particular interest to those in the world of English devolution – backed Johnson from the beginning, but even this wasn’t enough to save him. Johnson arrived in Downing Street at four o’clock and Brokenshire was gone by half five. This all gives darker meaning to an interview given to the Daily Mail last month. When Johnson was asked his favourite film scene he replied “the multiple retribution killings at the end of the Godfather.”

So, who’s in? Firstly, Robert Jenrick takes over at Housing, Communities, and Local Government. A relatively unknown MP, Jenrick attended and spoke at the Northern Powerhouse APPG launch in June 2018. He’s previously said that the Northern Powerhouse should be “core to our strategy for country and the economy” and has backed the Government in getting more devo deals over the line. For what it’s worth, his appointment was welcomed by Philip Blond of ResPublica, who wrote on Twitter: “Great news Robert – you can finally unlock devolution at scale – delighted for you.” Jenrick is a supporter of the Northern Powerhouse agenda and with parents from both Manchester and Liverpool, claims to be genuinely invested in a flourishing north. Time will tell. 

Some of the biggest news of the reshuffle, reported by the Yorkshire Post on Tuesday, is that the Northern Powerhouse Minister’s role will be upgraded to a cabinet post, a recognition perhaps that to win a general election the government will need to win over northern voters. We learned today that Jake Berry will stay in place, a boon for those who have been working closely with him over the past few months. Clearly a total change in direction on Northern Powerhouse plans from a Johnson Government isn’t necessarily on the cards. 

The new transport secretary, Grant Shapps, takes over from what was a pretty miserable few years under Chris Grayling. Shapps chairs the British Infrastructure Group of MPs and is generally supportive of infrastructure plans. Although he hasn’t been very vocal either way on HS2, the future is looking positive for Europe’s largest infrastructure project. Sajid Javid, the UK’s first ethnic minority chancellor, is a supporter and it is he, ultimately, who holds the purse strings. With the former HS2 chairman Douglas Oakervee now leading the review into its viability, supporters of the project have good reason to be optimistic. Oakervee has previously said that it would be “catastrophic” to cancel. Johnson has also given some commitments on Northern transport plans, telling the Yorkshire Post recently that the HS2 review will be looking at ways which “we can accelerate the provision of Northern Powerhouse Rail.” It seems his recent HS2 scepticism was simply for the Tory membership.

Another surprise came on Wednesday when it was announced that Dominic Cummings, former Campaign Director of Vote Leave, would take over as one of Johnson’s most senior Downing Street advisors. Cummings – a political maverick who pairs a comprehensive understanding of statistics with a hatred of received wisdom – has, according to the Times, successfully demanded that all government aides report directly to him. Cummings is known to many in the north not only as the man behind Vote Leave’s strategy but also the strategist who led the campaign against the North East Regional Assembly in 2004. Since the EU referendum he has been studying artificial intelligence and machine learning and writing mammoth 10,000-word blog posts about Whitehall ineptitude. Durham-born with a passionate hatred of the ‘cosmopolitan establishment’ he wants all government policy proposals to be subject to a thorough analysis by ‘elite red teams’ that sit outside civil service control. What he thinks about city region devolution is, at this stage, anyone’s guess. 

But what about the policy agenda? So far, thanks to Tom Newton Dunn’s scoop at the Sun, we know that it includes a huge ‘Brexit dividend for Britain’s forgotten regions’ which will be announced in speeches across the country in the coming weeks. So far, details on this are hazy. Johnson’s speech on the steps of Downing Street also sketched out his vision for increased and rebalanced school funding, recruiting 20,000 more police officers, and cutting GP waiting times, but none of this is too surprising. A detailed domestic agenda has supposedly been prepared behind closed doors by Boris’s team but we’ll have to wait for further detail.

With the Brexit dividend announcement, however, it is clear that Cummings’s plan for the EU referendum – leveraging anti-establishment feeling outside London – is now making its way into policy. There’s no doubt that this electorate, based mainly outside our large cities and spread unevenly across the towns and villages of England, will be a serious force in the next election. Whether a Johnson Government has any intention on delivering on its post-Brexit promises, however, is another matter. 

So, what should we make of it all? The new Johnson cabinet is a mixed bag. There isn’t a particularly anti-devolution bent to any of this, it just depends on the kind of devolution you want. Will we see more devo deals in the near future? No. Westminster and Whitehall are far too concerned with getting Brexit done and dealing with the fallout. Might it happen after this? Possibly. But the form of devolution may well shift significantly. Think powers over tax-free ports rather than devolved work and pensions. 

But Johnson and his colleagues know that this, ultimately, is a war cabinet. Brexit comes first, and everything else will have to wait.

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