DevoComment: Time for Northern Tories to get on board
I am that rare and exotic species: a northern Tory. When George Osborne announced his ambition to build a Northern Powerhouse I cheered him on – finally, after years of neglect from successive southern-facing Governments, here was a Chancellor pledging to invest in the North of England.
To me, it has always made perfect sense that a Conservative Government should herald a devolution revolution: after all, those with the knowledge and experience should be given control of their own affairs.
So imagine my surprise when I took a trip home for the Wirral and Cheshire Conservative Conference and found a very different revolution brewing. Instead of clapping a presentation from HS2 Minister, Baroness Williams of Trafford, about the Government’s grand plans for the Liverpool City Region, members took it in turns to ask – what was in it for them? The Government funding will be “hoarded” by Liverpool City Council, they said, with the Wirral Peninsula “abandoned” to the rule of Liverpool Mayoral hopeful Joe Anderson.
Why would northern Conservatives feel abandoned by George’s Northern Powerhouse? Let’s take Liverpool’s devolution deal as an example.
The Liverpool deal spans Liverpool, Wirral, Halton, Sefton, Knowsley and St Helens Councils, but the region’s Conservative representation is almost entirely concentrated on Wirral Council, with 21 Conservative councillors to Labour’s 36. It’s not difficult to see how the Wirral’s Conservative voice, represented in the Mayoral Cabinet by Labour Councillor Phil Davies, who helped to draft the deal with the Treasury, could find itself subsidising the demands of the much larger and influential Liverpool City Council – especially with a Labour Mayor in possession of a veto. These concerns have surfaced already, with worries that Mersey Tunnel tolls, most of which are paid by Wirral residents, will be increased to fund HS2’s extension into Liverpool.
I can’t help but wonder if George has thought through the political implications of his devolution revolution, because for all of the Chancellor’s rhetoric about rebalancing the economy, the intended by-product of the Northern Powerhouse is to create more Conservative voters in northern cities. David Cameron may have claimed that the North is “more Tory” after the General Election, but Liverpool, Newcastle, Sheffield and Hull still remain no-go zones for the party, despite being cities at the heart of the Northern Powerhouse concept. The party has just 100 members in Liverpool.
George knows that he needs the support of party members across the country if he is to satisfy his Prime Ministerial ambitions. He thinks the northern Tories will remember the shiny new trains and “investment in innovation” when they cast their vote for a new Conservative leader, and he will be counting on their support once again to return a Conservative Government with a larger majority than 12 at the 2020 General Election.
If George is to succeed in his ambitions he must win over northern Tories, get them on board and not leave them to the mercy of Labour metro-mayors.
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