George Osborne is not loved by his party. The intense attacks on Theresa May during the general election, and since then, have alienated many Conservatives. Osborne’s anti-Leave tactics, which reached their peak with the “punishment budget”, had already poisoned the well. But the former Chancellor still has a legacy worth preserving and advancing, of which the most promising policy is the Northern Powerhouse.
In policy terms, the Northern Powerhouse fits very well with May’s economic vision. By devolving power to city regions and connecting them together through new infrastructure projects, it represents a smart and strategic form of state intervention. It also specifically targets a region which voted for Leave and has felt left behind by globalisation. In a joint article with Michael Bloomberg, the former Mayor of New York, Osborne was right to say “rather than seeking refuge in nationalism and isolationism, we believe that a better response to globalisation lies in localisation”.
After his brutal sacking by May, the Northern Powerhouse appeared to take a back seat. There is some confusion as to how much of this was due to enmity towards Osborne or part of the broader attempt to differentiate May from her predecessor. As a born and bred Brummie, Nick Timothy chose to shift the Government’s modern industrial strategy more towards the Midlands Engine. Greater attention towards the Midlands is certainly in order, but it should not have come at the expense of the North of England.
The Northern Powerhouse is not just one of Osborne’s pet projects. It is a ground breaking idea with bipartisan support. Labour Mayors in Manchester and Liverpool are responsible for making the Northern Powerhouse a success at a local level along with the Conservative Mayor for Tees Valley. But if the Conservatives in Westminster let Labour take all of the initiative, then they will miss the chance to make major inroads into Northern seats.
So far the signs are not good. Chris Grayling’s decision to cancel the electrification of three key routes went down poorly, especially when the decision to provide £31 billion in funding for a new Crossrail line in London was announced a few days later. The spending gap between London and the North of England is estimated to be £1,500 per person. Rebalancing the economy cannot be achieved with such a severe gap in investment.
If the Conservatives want to reform capitalism to benefit the “just about managing”, then launching an ambitious infrastructure plan for the North of England should become a priority. They could start by fast-tracking Northern Powerhouse Rail instead of waiting for HS2 to be completed. The powers enjoyed by Transport for London should also be devolved to the mayors of city regions since it is the local level which is best placed to handle increased investment from Westminster.
The EU referendum and the rise of Jeremy Corbyn proves it is time for a rebalancing of the British economy. A vast reserve of talent is waiting to be unlocked in the North of England. Conservatives can reward the aspirations of many by committing to the Northern Powerhouse. Success would make this a truly One Nation government capable of bringing prosperity to a region which has been neglected for too long.