Manufacturers of high viz jackets and other personal protective equipment, rejoice: George Osborne is back – and he’s worried.
Two months after the former chancellor was unceremoniously – one might almost say gleefully – fired by Theresa May, Osborne popped up on this morning’s Today Programme to fret about his beloved Northern Powerhouse. Speaking in code so obscure it could defeat the Enigma machine, he said there had been a “little bit of a wobble” about whether May’s government was “still committed to the concept”.
Luckily, though, George is on hand to sort things out. He’s launching a new think tank, the “Northern Powerhouse Partnership”, which he has generously agreed to chair. The body will bring together political and business leaders from across the north, and campaign for greater devolution and improve transport links. It will do, in other words, most of the things Osborne wanted the Northern Powerhouse to do when in government, with the one minor difference that he’s now outside it.
The left has often questioned Osborne’s commitment to the north. His austerity budgets, by an odd coincidence, tended to fall disproportionately heavily on regions that voted Labour, a group including almost all the northern cities. And some in the opposition have campaigned against devolution, on the grounds it was just a way of putting Labour councils on the hook for Tory cuts.
For some, the cynicism runs yet deeper. Many on the left have sneered at the idea a Conservative could even care about a region of the country his party had effectively left to rot in the eighties. Osborne loved Thatcher; Thatcher hated the north; ergo, Osborne must hate the north, too.
I’ve never quite bought this. It always seemed to me that there was a very good reason why an ambitious Tory would want to revive the northern economy: rich constituencies are less likely to vote Labour. It’s not a contradiction for Osborne to be sincere about the Northern Powerhouse, yet be cynically trying to undermine Labour, both at the same time.
Now he’s out of power, and what do you know, his own political self-interest is aligned with the right thing to do once again. Heading up his new think tank will allow Osborne to keep banging the drum for the north, while also giving him a new powerbase and continued political relevance.
But there’s a danger that this looks a bit, well, half-hearted. Exactly what the Northern Powerhouse Partnership will do is difficult to work out, because it doesn’t exist yet – but Britain is not short of think tanks, and why this will be any different remains to be seen.
If Osborne really wants to build his powerhouse, he should stop mucking around and go for the big job: mayor of Greater Manchester.
The king in the north
The Tories are not over flowing with potential candidates in Greater Manchester. Of its 10 boroughs, only one (Trafford) is held by the Tories; just five of the region’s 27 MPs are Conservative, and none of them is a household names.
Osborne’s constituency (Tatton, in Cheshire) isn’t in Greater Manchester – but it does border it, and consist of places well within its orbit. He has as good a claim to the party’s nomination as anyone.
More to the point, though, this is his baby. The Northern Powerhouse, city regions, metro mayors – all were Osborne’s idea. If he wants to show that he was serious, that this was more than an attempt to wrong-foot Labour, well, here’s his chance.
Labour’s mayoral candidate Andy Burnham, a man who has never been accused of being overly tactical in his positioning. Image: Getty.
In its early days, the London mayoralty was not taken seriously, and struggled to attract top-flight candidates. But a Manchester mayoral election in which a former chancellor faced off against a former Labour health secretary would show, from the start, that this is a big job for serious people. If Osborne wants the new mayors to be taken seriously, he could do worse than run for the job himself.
I don’t believe for a second that Osborne will do this, for the very good reason that he will probably lose: Manchester is a Labour city, and Osborne is not exactly electoral cat nip. (Last March, a YouGov poll found that, after six years as chancellor, just 8 per cent of the British electorate thought he’d be “up to the job of Prime Minister”.)
But another hit against Osborne has always been that he treats politics as one big chess game: that he is a man without principal, concerned only with tactical advantage. Fighting a quixotic campaign that he is highly likely to lose might, paradoxically, boost his reputation.
Oh, and he’d probably get to wear a lot of high viz gear on the campaign trail, too.
So, come on George. You want to show you believe in the north and its powerhouse. You want the new metro mayors to be serious political figures. And you want a platform from which you can rebuild your reputation and, what the hell, throw a few rocks at the people who fired you.
How about it?
Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.