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ExCeL London - 24-25 February 2021
Backing Johnson’s vision of a turbo-charged North may bring forth the money for long-neglected project
During Boris Johnson’s campaign for the leadership of the Conservative Party, his media and social media outriders (those that were loosely attached to the campaign but would carry the message each day) would reel off the impacts of a Johnson premiership. Top of the list was, of course, delivering Brexit, but a close second was investing in the north of England.
Take this from key Conservative commentator Tim Montgomerie on 18 July: “I’m voting for @BorisJohnson to be the next Conservative leader… because I hope and believe he’ll invest in national and especially northern infrastructure in a way no Tory PM has ever done before.”
The initial month of the premiership continued this rhetoric. In one of his first speeches, PM Johnson stood in front of Stephenson’s Rocket in Manchester and sketched out his vision for the north of England. It had the flourishes we have come to expect. He would deliver the “most formidable transport and technological connectivity on the planet”; he would “turbo-charge the north”; he would do “with Northern Powerhouse Rail what we did with Crossrail in London”.
He also promised to fund the Leeds-Manchester route. He would leave it to local representatives to fill in the detail but he was “ready to do a deal in the Autumn”.
The north of England is often thought of as natural Labour territory
Labour immediately hit back with accusations that there was no detail, that you couldn’t trust Johnson or that the actual length of track being promised was only the length of the Central Line on the London Underground but still… the PM was making healing the North-South divide a priority.
It is important for us to consider why. The north of England is often thought of as natural Labour territory. Conservative electoral chances may well depend on cracking this traditional Labour stronghold.
Theresa May in the 2017 general election had a similar strategy. She identified scores of seats where the size of UKIP’s vote was greater than the gap between the Labour MP and the Conservative challenger. Her team’s thinking was that if they ran a Eurosceptic campaign they could hoover up a collapsed UKIP vote and nab the seats from Labour.
This didn’t happen for a myriad of reasons, one of the major ones being that 2017 wasn’t the Brexit election Tory HQ had banked on.
The next election could well be. An avowedly pro-Brexit administration that is throwing money (or pledges of money) at projects in the north of England may well deliver the strategy envisioned in 2017.
So what does this mean for us? If a Johnson premiership is viewed with some nervousness by lobbyists for transport infrastructure in the south then the opposite is true of those in the north.
HS3/Crossrail for the North/Northern Powerhouse Rail – call it what you will – has been dutifully developed by transport authorities in the north, but there hasn’t been a breakthrough on the £39bn project.
The government is, meanwhile, launching a review of HS2 – with a “go or no-go” call to be made by the end of this year. HS2 has a station at Manchester Airport but if it does go ahead as yet it isn’t clear who will pick up the tab for it. The second phase of HS2, Leeds-Manchester, won’t be complete until between 2035 and 2040 if the government follows a recommendation by new HS2 Ltd chairman Allan Cook.
The challenge for the proponents of these projects is to make themselves part of the delivery of this Johnson vision. To have their scheme seen as part of the ambition to “turbo charge the North”, and to take the opportunity to put their case now – and then funding taps will seemingly be turned on.