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Will Boris Johnson be the Northern Powerhouse Prime Minister?

Jake Berry quit his role as Northern Powerhouse Minister. Credit: PA

Blog by ITV News Granada's Political Correspondent Hannah Miller.

The Northern Powerhouse minister no longer has a seat at the cabinet table - the latest downgrade to a project that has been through plenty of redesigns in its six-year history.

It’s an odd decision, you might think, for a Government that claims to be committed to ‘levelling up’ across the regions. But does Boris Johnson’s latest move in fact show how central the North has become to the whole Government agenda?

When George Osborne first started talking about the Northern Powerhouse in 2014 it was the Chancellor’s personal pet project. A junior minister was appointed to oversee some of the work, but there was no doubt that the push to boost growth in the North of England was coming from the highest level of Government.

Since then the scheme has been on a stop-start journey that’s not dissimilar to many Northern commutes - Theresa May’s officials proving to be a road-block, before Boris Johnson arrived on the scene to give the green light again.

Credit: PA

After taking on the role in 2017, Jake Berry went on to become the longest-serving of the Northern Powerhouse ministers to date. Born in Liverpool, a student in Sheffield, MP for Rossendale and Darwen - his northern credentials were never in question.

There were the usual political disagreements between a Conservative Minister and devolved Labour administrations, but Jake Berry built respect among many of his colleagues across the region. Though his power was limited, few doubted his personal commitment to the project - even at a time when talking about the North was much less fashionable in Westminster than it is today.

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Just seven months ago, in the first throes of Boris Johnson’s Government, Jake Berry won the right to attend Cabinet in his Northern Powerhouse role - thanks not least to a concerted campaign from some northern newspapers.

This week he quit when it became clear he would no longer be invited to attend cabinet discussions. The now former Minister says he was offered another job but declined, preferring to spend time with his young family instead. He’ll be replaced by Simon Clarke, the Middlesbrough MP who takes on responsibility for ‘devolution, levelling-up and the North’, but who won’t have a voice at the Government’s top table.

Yet far from feeling sidelined, some of those involved in the Northern Powerhouse project are welcoming the new Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, as a more powerful ally in pushing forward with their plans. Their hopes of getting money from the Treasury are running high - could this be the moment that ‘northern’ issues are finally seen as a national priority?

Long-promised infrastructure improvements have not been delivered. Credit: PA

Among northern people there is plenty of deeply-held scepticism about what the Northern Powerhouse has actually achieved - critics say that the Northern Powerhouse has become a brand for ‘things that should have happened anyway’. But the truth is they weren’t happening, in some cases they still aren’t. Pacer trains remain, long-promised infrastructure improvements have not been delivered, and the region has seen some of the biggest cuts to Local Government funding in the country.

But for the Conservatives, the Northern Powerhouse as a political strategy has already proved to be a triumph - Jake Berry describing it as ‘the foundation stone of the blue wall that delivered a Conservative majority Government’.

There is no way the party won the election because of the Northern Powerhouse itself, but it focussed their attention on the north, and provided them with a way to talk about the type of rebalancing that the country undoubtedly needs. Now as the Government seeks to repay those voters who put it into power, there is a possibility that the political project has been so successful it might start to have more practical effect.

As the new Cabinet sits down for the first time, there will be renewed focus on what this Government wants to achieve. Boris Johnson has sidelined his new Northern Powerhouse Minister, but will he take on the role and become the Northern Powerhouse Prime Minister?

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