An unforgettable week of politics, and what could a new PM mean for the region?

Credit: PA Images

Even by the standards of recent years, it has been a truly remarkable week in British politics - with our region and its representatives again at the heart of it.

At 6:11pm on Tuesday evening, I was in Parliament's Central Lobby, ready for a pretty run-of-the-mill live report on the potential locations for a new railway HQ.

That subject was suddenly shelved, as other news crews ran in alongside me.

North Yorkshire MP Rishi Sunak had delivered the bombshell that he was quitting as Chancellor, telling Boris Johnson "we cannot continue like this."

Health Secretary Sajid Javid had gone a few moments earlier.

24 hours later, the tally of resignations from government was somewhere around 36 - with Darlington's Peter Gibson soon followed by Redcar's Jacob Young, leaving their ministerial aide positions and urging the Prime Minister to fall on his sword.

They had both been willing to come on TV and defend their party leader during the repeated scandals of the last few months.

There was a deep loyalty to Boris Johnson from among those MPs first elected in 2019, in particular, a recognition their seats were owed in significant part to his charismatic campaigning at the last election.

But for so many, across different parts of the party, last week's revelations over the appointment of Chris Pincher as a government whip despite allegations over his conduct, and the untruths told after stories emerged, were the final straw.

The vote of no confidence in the Prime Minister a month ago had failed, now mass abandonment eventually left him unable to govern.

Hexham MP Guy Opperman was one of the last to go, giving up the Pensions Minister role he loves, as the list of departures pushed past 50 on Thursday morning.

Less than 36 hours later, Mr Opperman was back in the same job, agreeing to help keep things running as part of a caretaker government.

Having finally admitted the inevitable, Boris Johnson remains in Downing Street for now, as his successor is chosen.

Finally admitting his ambition, Mr Sunak re-entered the fray on Friday afternoon.

He announced he's running for PM with a typically glossy social media video and a pitch focused on his seriousness, no doubt intending to draw a distinction from his old boss next door.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer had also sought to gain ground by defining himself as Mr Johnson’s polar opposite, but will have to recalibrate for a different opponent across the dispatch box.

It had of course looked like a vacancy might be about to open up at the top of the Labour party too.

But, with quite some timing, as if the previous few days had not been decisive enough, Durham Police announced at lunchtime on Friday that no rules had been broken during the so-called ‘beergate’ evening in Durham last April.

Sir Keir and his deputy Angela Rayner had pledged to resign if they were fined, but can now get on with trying to win back the so-called ‘Red Wall’ of former strongholds that have fallen into Tory hands.

Labour lost seven seats in the North East at the 2019 general election, plus the Hartlepool by-election.

That stunning success for the Prime Minister was just 14 months ago, a reminder that his downfall has been startlingly rapid, as well as painfully drawn out over the last few weeks.

Last May, it looked like Boris Johnson had managed to redraw British politics in his image, combining his ability to appeal beyond traditional party loyalties, with promises to ‘level up’ the country by investing in places like the North East.

So what does his departure mean for the region now?

Peter Gibson has already written to the new Chancellor Nadhim Zahawi asking for assurance that plans for a permanent government campus in Darlington will remain on course.

The Tees Valley has certainly had a lot of attention, but more broadly you could suggest 'levelling up' has been more rhetoric than reality so far, some spruced-up town centres scant consolation for millions of pounds removed from council budgets over recent years.

There has been a pandemic, war in Ukraine and soaring inflation to deal with - and tackling regional inequality is naturally a long-term challenge.

Immediately on the agenda next was more devolution, with talks well underway to extend the North of Tyne combined authority, and introduce deals for County Durham, and North Yorkshire with York.

That could all be blown off course.

In the short-term, Greg Clark - originally from Middlesbrough - has been appointed as Levelling Up Secretary in the caretaker cabinet.

But direction will ultimately come from the new man or woman in No10 Downing Street.

Rishi Sunak, originally from down south, has been a North Yorkshire MP since 2015.

In his Budget speech of March 2021, he painted the Tees Valley as the home of 'levelling up', and has been spending time on that fledgling campus in Darlington recently.

There are no 'Red Wall' candidates for the leadership - it would likely be seen as too soon for any of the 2019 intake.

They will be a significant caucus to win over during the early stages of the leadership contest, and Jake Berry, leader of the 'Northern Research Group' of Tory MPs, has said they will be hosting hustings and unveiling core principles they hope candidates adopt.

It will be Conservative party members, though, still predominantly based in their traditional heartlands, who have the final say, so the final two contenders may well dial down talk of 'levelling up.'

Any changes made by the next PM to the terms of Brexit could also be very significant in the North East, particularly due to the big part exports play in the local economy.

Difficult decisions on the cost of living crisis, and how much help people need this coming winter, will surely be the most pressing task.

This week's drama at Westminster will surely have some big consequences in our region.

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