Boris has made a BIG promise to turbocharge the North. With an election looming, whether before or after Brexit happens, he knows that votes in Labour’s key marginals are crucial to his victory.
If the reaction to his appearance at the Convention of the North is anything to go by, it will take a lot to convince Northern leaders that this isn’t just bluster.
He has made some serious promises to ‘Revitalise the Northern Powerhouse’, to ‘do devolution properly’, to give more control over transport; Getting Sheffield City Region working, new devolution deals for Leeds and Yorkshire, and a new growth body to work closely with Northern Powerhouse Minister Jake Berry. His words were good and on the face of it this all fantastic news but it feels like even concrete plans will be greeted with a large dollop of Northern scepticism.
“What is needed most of all is local leadership, trusting people to take back control and lead as they want to”, Johnson said, “this is not about central government abdicating responsibility, but local leaders have a real power to change the issues.”
‘Taking back control’, as many have argued since Brexit, must involve devolving powers to local areas. Powers taken back from Brussels can’t simply be horded in Westminster. Johnson seems to understand this, or at least understands that the rhetoric of giving power back to local people and communities could swing those key marginal seats. As Dan Jarvis, Sheffield Mayor and Labour MP said last week, “The new PM and his government must demonstrate commitment to the North and unlock our huge potential – and I want to see this through deeds, not words.” The game is being played and manoeuvres are afoot, but the question shouldn’t be whether we believe him, it should be how can we hold him to account.
Election gameplaying has always been the problem with the Northern Powerhouse project. If powers haven’t yet been devolved to Labour-held areas it’s hard for northern voters to penalise Conservative Governments in London for not delivering on their promises. Instead, Northern leaders need to grasp Johnson’s promises as if they’ve been set in stone. There’s now a desperate need to speak with one voice. Just like Remainers in Parliament who haven’t reached consensus until it’s arguably too late, Northern politicians risk seeing Prime Mnisterial promises that they treat with cynicism melt into thin air.
This isn’t to say that we should trust Johnson and his team. We know that most of his promises are probably fluff. But by seeing his words as empty there is little prospect for serious further devolution in England. Andy Burnham has previously stated that his approach to devolution is that’s it’s better to ask forgiveness than permission. In the case of Johnson, it’s better to act as if he will deliver on all his promises than to presume they’ll be broken. In the rough world of Northern devolution, sometimes acting naïve is the only way to play the game.