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OSBORNE of the north

OSBORNE of the northIf George Osborne had beaten Bill Wiggin for the Conservative nomination in Leominster, he would not have become MP for Tatton.  If he had not become MP for Tatton, he would have not have got to grips with the Labour-dominated politics of Manchester.  If he had not got to grips with Manchester and its politics, he would not have been able to cut the deal that will give Greater Manchester a single elected mayor – a centrepiece of his Northern Powerhouse plan.

The merging of its health and social services, announced by the Chancellor last week, might well not have happened either.  In short, there might not have been a Northern Powerhouse strategy at all: no Treasury-backed plan to link northern cities – from Liverpool to Newcastle through Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield and other urban areas – together to match the economic, governmental and cultural sway and prestige of London.  No Tory electoral push in the north, backed at the Party’s highest levels.

This story of how a London-raised Conservative Chancellor and a Labour-dominated northern city came together is thus, in its own way, further evidence of how accident and fortune make politics happen.  It is a tale that has been largely neglected by the capital city-centric media (the Daily Telegraph’s James Kirkup is among the exceptions).  But it is well worth a glance – at least, if you’re interested in the coming election, cities, growth, localism and the future of governance in Britain.

Friends of the Chancellor claim that his support for directly elected mayors – with powers over transport, housing, planning and regeneration – goes back all the way to opposition. And, as might be expected, they pin the blame for the collapse of the original push for them under the Coalition on the Liberal Democrats.  “The Government was offering new mayors but with no new powers,” said one.  “There was nothing to fire the imagination and no big campaign of support. The outcome was inevitable.”

Bristol voted Yes. Nine other cities voted No.  Conservative localists, such as Greg Clark, retired to lick their wounds.  But Osborne kept a flame burning for the elected Mayors project and for a Tory electoral drive in the north.  In policy terms, he wanted, as another friend puts it, “to combine the best of Lawson and Heseltine”.  In political ones, he believes that the Party’s electoral weakness in northern urban areas should be reversed – not accepted, shrugged at, or explained away.

This means raising the present total of Conservative MPs in those areas from 20 out of 124. If the Chancellor had, say, Leeds on his doorstep, his strategy might well have got nowhere.  But he had Manchester, and therein lay an opportunity.  While Liverpool travelled to the left during the 1980s, Manchester City Council stayed in Labour’s mainstream.  The independent-minded Graham Stringer, now an MP, led it.

Stringer’s successor is Sir Richard Leese.  Its Chief Executive is Sir Howard Bernstein.  Osborne knows them both well from his 15 years in Tatton, supporting Bernstein’s plans for a super-casino in the city when in opposition.  The Treasury version of events is that he took charge of the drive for a Greater Manchester-wide elected mayor himself – taking on critics within government (such as Vince Cable), cutting a deal with Leese and others, striving to keep Labour’s leadership out of the loop.

His efforts paid off last November.  The Chancellor was able to announce the creation of a city-wide mayor with powers over planning, transport and housing.  It was a beefed-up version of the city deals so patiently championed England-wide by Clark.  Clegg was given a less sweeping one for Sheffield.  Andy Burnham (a Manchester MP himself) was kept in the dark.  Osborne’s friends portray the manoeuvre as an audacious stealing of Labour’s urban clothes – a brilliant Disraelian gambit.

But Greater Manchester is not, of course, a single local authority.  It has no fewer than nine other councils within its area.  On one of them, Stockport, the Liberal Democrats are the largest group.  Another, Trafford, is the flagship Conservative council in the north: Sean Anstee, its young leader, has written on this site about how he and his team have kept control and seen Labour off.  The Chancellor had to square Trafford and Stockport, as well as the other Manchester councils.

And some local Tories paint a far less glittering picture than the Chancellor’s allies – arguing that Osborne is obsessed with American-style mayors and desperate to make up for the defeat of the original proposals.  There will be no London-style Assembly to rein the Mayor in, they say, and the plan has not properly been thought through.  They dismiss the health and social services merger as leaked before it was ready, and ask how Salford’s directly-elected Mayor is consistent with a city-wide one.

The Trafford Tories, they complain, were browbeaten into submission: it was made clear that there would be no new money without assent to the deal.  “What do Trafford Conservatives and others have to gain from a City Mayor who is very likely to be Labour?” said one.  The Chancellor might reply that there’s no reason to assume that Ed Miliband’s party will keep its grip on the city in perpetuity – and that the Tories need new thinking if they are to break out of such strongholds as Trafford.

In a speech last summer, he set out his thinking. The core of his case was that cities have stopped declining and started advancing again. “Once hollowed-out city centres are thriving again, with growing universities, iconic museums and cultural events, and huge improvements to the quality of life,” he said, citing Liverpool, Leeds, Newcastle – and, of course, Manchester. Jim O’Neill, Chairman of the Cities Growth Commission, is based there. The Factory, a major arts space, is to go up – with Treasury help.

It may all come down to a judgement call.  Is a single figurehead with greater powers more or less likely to attract the investment that a major city needs, get a grip on its transport and housing, and project political debate to local voters – thus re-engaging them?  The answer of the ConservativeHome Manifesto is a decisive Yes, which is why we backed a Northern Infrastructure Fund, elected Mayors, fiscal decentralisation and more devolution.

Osborne has no shortage of spinners at his disposal.  (As well as some bright policy wonks, such as Neil O’Brien, formerly of Policy Exchange, who have a big interest in northern revival.)  And some of the elements of the Northern Powerhouse scheme – such as HS3 – are not convincing.  But perhaps the best judges of it are Conservative MPs themselves.  As one put it to us last week, the Chancellor’s strategy “has really got under Labour’s skin up here”.

“People are waking up to the fact that the infrastructure’s going in – that railway lines are going in and road surfaces are being improved,” he continued.  As he pointed out, Ministers are being dispatched to the marginals with announcements, following where Treasury cash has already gone.  Osborne’s starting-point in the north was Manchester.  But he is travelling further in search of revival and victory, spreading wings of patronage, money and power like those of the emblematic statue in Gateshead.

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