July 26, 2022
A constant amid the change
Going, going, not quite gone.
Forget an Indian summer, welcome to the Johnsonian summer.
Yes, it’s warm, but it’s only going to get hotter in Conservative HQ after the fire of Tory MPs – not without good reason – burned through another leader.
Whoever replaces their departing frontman will inherit a tough job, having not only to unite a party at odds with itself, but one at significant variance to a sizeable portion of the population.
For the country, it’s another crossroads moment.
Whichever minister takes the role will inevitably seek to introduce, remove and alter legislation, as they strive for quick
voter wins and longer-term General Election trust. And it’s the same story for the North East.
The ‘levelling-up’ agenda was a constant throughout Boris Johnson’s premiership, and it must continue to be a cornerstone of Government focus under Downing Street’s next resident.
Announcing his departure with little – if any – contrition, Johnson told the gathered press corps the Government must “keep unleashing the potential of every part of the UK”.
He’s said – and done – many things over the years that don’t warrant repeating, but on ‘levelling-up’, he was at least worth listening to.
The North East has huge potential, and the new resident of Number Ten will be wise to acknowledge that when their feet are officially under the table.
No slowing the momentum
As the race to replace Boris Johnson as Conservative leader and Prime Minister intensifies, Steven Hugill says the country’s next seat of power incumbent must not leave the North East standing when it comes to the ‘levelling-up’ agenda.
As Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen strolled into a hired marquee alongside SeAH Wind delegates to celebrate the latter’s £400 million Teesworks factory in early July, he was accompanied by something else too.
Over his shoulder, a brass band was filling the air with World in Union, the piece a nod to the international ties created by the South Korean firm’s arrival on UK shores. A few hundred miles away, however, there was an altogether different sound ringing out.
On a bed of frenzied camera clicks, discord echoed around Downing Street as Boris Johnson, one bum note too many, announced his departure.
Up at Teesworks, Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng, a Cabinet mainstay in Johnson’s final hours as all around others discovered new political principles like finding a fiver down the back of a settee, told the gathered audience he was glad the “parlour games” were coming to an end.
The whole bloody charade had gone on for too long.
The stage managed buffoonery wasn’t funny any more (it never was), the preposterous idea purported by some of sharing a pint down the local with ‘good laugh Boris’ had turned sour.
After lurching from one crisis to the next, the mask had slipped too far – there was no way back.
And now, with Johnson (almost) out of the door, attention turns to the future.
Specifically, what his demise could mean for the North East.
Throughout his premiership, the ‘levelling-up’ agenda was always a handy buzz phrase in the interview arsenal, and a reliable slogan too for assistants to use when updating ministers’ social media accounts during oft-awkward, and always overly-managed, workplace and community visits
What now, though?
Yes, we had the ‘levelling-up’ white paper earlier this year, but it’ll count for nothing if nobody is present to go about delivering it.
Michael Gove, the man who was heading it, has gone – the only minister sacked amid the slew of recent resignations – with Greg Clark’s name now above the door.
However, whoever emerges victorious from the leadership race will undoubtedly want their own team, with numerous faces likely not to make it unscathed through the political tumble dryer of the coming months.
What cannot be allowed to change, though, is the focus on ‘levelling-up’, or whichever phrase might be adopted by the new Prime Minister.
Put simply, the policy must not be shunted to a siding while they – and their team – get accustomed to life in Number Ten and the front benches, respectively.
In fairness to Johnson, in his (sort of) farewell speech, he did say “we need to keep ‘levelling-up’, keep unleashing the potential of every part of the UK”.
And with that in mind, whoever takes the Tory mantel would be wise to take Clark’s counsel too.
Flying in the face of Johnson’s usual appointment standards, he’s not a bad shout – and one certainly worthy of consideration for the role in the new regime. A former Business Secretary, he already has a grasp of the UK’s commercial scene and where it is heading.
Crucially too, though, he’s a local lad.
Born in Middlesbrough, he went to school in nearby South Bank, and was rolled out by the party in Darlington ahead of the 2017 General Election to woo voters over the so-called Red Wall.
So he understands the physical topography, the employment landscape and bluntly, what’s going on.
We’ve had cash for the Teesworks development, the Government has given vehicle battery maker Britishvolt and subsea cable maker JDR nearly £2 billion support to build factories at Cambois, near Blyth, Northumberland, and recently-departed Chancellor Rishi Sunak set the wheels in motion for more than a thousand civil servants, including hundreds in the Treasury, to decamp from London to Darlington’s new Northern Economic Campus.
But we cannot let the momentum slow.
Whoever picks up the baton from Johnson must quickly get in tune with our region and conduct themselves – and their party – to meet its needs.
Failure to do so would be a real bum note.