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Staying in tune on ‘levelling-up’ after one bum note too many

As Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen strolled into a hired marquee alongside SeAH Wind delegates to celebrate the latter’s £400 million Teesworks factory, he was accompanied by something else too.

Outside, a brass band filled the air with World in Union, a musical nod to the international ties created by the South Korean firm’s arrival on UK shores.

A few hundred miles away, though, there was an altogether different sound ringing out.

Discord echoed around Downing Street as Boris Johnson, one bum note too many, finally announced his departure.

Up at Teesworks, Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng – a Cabinet mainstay in Johnson’s final hours as others fled the scene quicker than the ex-PM shuffling into an industrial freezer to duck media questions – told the gathered audience he was glad the “parlour games” were coming to an end.

Agreed, Minister.

The whole bloody charade had gone on for too long – the stage managed buffoonery wasn’t funny any more (it never was), the mask had slipped too far this time.

And now, with Johnson (almost) out of the door too, attention turns to the future.

No, not the rather shallow puddle of Tory leadership candidates, but what Johnson’s demise could mean for the North East.

Throughout his premiership, the ‘levelling-up’ agenda was always a handy buzz phrase in the interview arsenal, a reliable slogan for assistants to use when updating ministers’ social media accounts during oft-awkward, and always overly-managed, visits to workplaces and communities.

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 resignations – with Greg Clark’s name now above the door, as part of a hastily cobbled together Cabinet.

But, whoever emerges victorious from the leadership race will undoubtedly want their own team, with numerous faces likely not make it through the 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’ (and) keep unleashing the potential of every part of the UK”.

With all of 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.

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 and 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.

Furthermore, 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 its needs.

Failure to do so would be a real bum note.