Devolution dilemma for Government….mayor the force be with you, Mrs May
The abrupt resignation of Chancellor George Osborne minutes after Theresa May moved in to Downing Street has raised an obvious and urgent question in the world of local government – is meaningful devolution still on the agenda?
Mr Osborne has been a Government champion – some might say the only champion – of creating economic growth by devolving budgets and powers from Whitehall to the regions. He appeared to truly believe that decisions about infrastructure and economic development made locally are the best decisions, and crucially that councils and business leaders working together could be trusted to do the right thing.
He invented the Northern Powerhouse and Midlands Engine and insisted that regions wishing to benefit from full devolution must agree to have an elected mayor. The West Midlands is due to elect a mayor next May. Will that actually happen now?
The mistrust of elected mayors and combined authorities among the Tory rank and file cannot be over-estimated. Similarly, many Labour councillors detest the mayoral system because they say it places too much power into the hands of one person, even if proposals by the West Midlands combined authority to rein in the mayor suggest the role is hardly going to be as all-powerful as many people suppose.
That is beside the point. A great many people in Westminster, sadly, regard the Northern Powerhouse and Midlands Engine as an ‘Osborne gimmick’ and would not mind a jot if these institutions were never heard of again.
The appointment of Philip Hammond as Chancellor, described in The Times as a fiscal hawk, set alarm bells ringing with one West Midlands council leader privately speculating last night that the region may never get an elected mayor now.
Paul Faulkner, the chief executive of the Greater Birmingham Chambers of Commerce, took to Twitter to declare “we simply cannot allow this to happen” in response to suggestions that devolution is about to be derailed.
It may appear that fiscal hawks would be instinctively opposed to handing tax-raising powers to mayors and combined authorities, but there is some hope based on comments made by Theresa May before she became prime minister.
As Home Secretary Mrs May was a firm supporter of directly elected police commissioners and wanted to give them more powers to oversee fire services and to become deputy metro mayors.
With regards to regional devolution she said she wanted “a plan to help not one, or even two of our great regional cities, but every single one of them”. Greg Clark, the Communities Secretary, a key ally, has said that she “gets” the Northern devolution agenda.
Mr Clark, though, was replaced as Communities and Local Government Secretary in the reshuffle by Bromsgrove MP Sajid Javid, formerly the Business Secretary. Mr Javid has been the Midlands Engine ‘champion’, so he presumably believes in devolution.
In her leadership campaign launch Mrs May included a call for a ‘proper’ industrial strategy which would include more house building and an increase in Treasury backed bonds for new infrastructure projects – fascinatingly, policies espoused by the Labour leader of Birmingham city council, John Clancy.
Committing to continuing the devolution programme is probably not going to be anywhere near the top of Mrs May’s to-do list, but local authorities will be looking for a steer pretty quickly. There is an obvious danger of a classic Whitehall fudge – keep the combined authorities, but scrap the mayors.
Entering Downing Street yesterday the new Prime Minister stunned Westminster with a quick-fire series of appointments – most notably promoting Brexiteer and former mayor of London Boris Johnson to Foreign Secretary, a move that literally left many MPs speechless given Mr Johnson’s ability to upset most European countries and his somewhat patchy grasp of diplomacy.
Boris, incidentally, will inherit the palatial office where past incumbents have included Sir Edward Grey, Foreign Secretary in 1914, who famously warned on the eve of the Great War that “the lights are going out all over Europe”. Hopefully, this will not be a sign of things to come when Mr Johnson and his colleagues start to negotiate Britain’s exit from the EU.
Although Mrs May struck a defiant One Nation Tory note in her first speech as prime minister, promising to be a champion for working class Britons, her first cabinet appointments were all from the right of the Conservative party.
David Davis, the former Tory leadership challenger who has been in the political wilderness for six years, becomes Brexit Secretary overseeing the exit negotiations. Dr Liam Fox, a former Defence Secretary with hawkish views, leads a new Department for International Trade. Amber Rudd, only in the cabinet for 14 months, is the new Home Secretary.
Sources indicated that further cabinet and ministerial appointments today would broaden Mrs May’s top team, with more women and more candidates from the One Nation wing of the party.
Mrs May, the longest-serving Home Secretary for over 100 years, tread a relatively soft tone during the referendum debate. She called the EU “far from perfect” during the campaign, though made the case for reasons of security, protection against crime and terrorism.
Notably she also stressed ahead of the vote that on the issue of immigration, leaving the EU would not be “the single bullet” to solve the UK’s immigration issues.
In the past few days Mrs May has insisted “Brexit must mean Brexit” and her appointment of Eurosceptics Johnson, Davis and Fox to head up exit negotiations suggest the course has been set. It is difficult to imagine that these three will permit any watering down of Brexit.
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