May must build on Osborne’s devolution agenda if she is to realise her economic ambitionsby Andrew Carter / May 9, 2017 / Leave a comment
When former Chancellor George Osborne pushed for substantial devolution of powers and funding from Westminster to England’s major cities two years ago, many in his own party were sceptical.
Few would have argued with the then Chancellor’s stated aims of addressing imbalance in the UK’s economy and its overly centralised political system. But creating strong mayoral roles in traditional Labour strongholds across the North and Midlands seemed an odd move politically, especially when you consider that the Conservatives only had—indeed, have—a slender majority at Westminster.
However, it was precisely this need to revive Tory fortunes in Labour heartlands which Osborne had in mind when he set out his devolution agenda. It was to a large extent designed to cement Conservative dominance across England and wrest control from Labour in major cities.
Two years on, even Osborne (who has exited the political stage) must be surprised at how successfully this vision has been realised following the first metro mayor elections last week. As expected, the Conservatives won in Cambridgeshire & Peterborough and the West of England (which includes the Tory-led councils of Bath & North East Somerset and South Gloucestershire as well as Bristol). But back in May 2015, few would have predicted that the Tories would also win in the West Midlands and Tees Valley—places where Labour had 10 and 13 point leads respectively at the 2015 general election, but where concerns about Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, support for Brexit and strong campaigns by Conservatives have put paid to Labour hopes.
The question now is whether Theresa May will build on this success by going further in reversing decades of over-centralisation in the British political system—or whether the new mayors will represent the culmination of the devolution agenda championed by Osborne.
Certainly, there has been much less focus on devolution from May’s government than there was from the previous administration. This is to an extent understandable, given the immediate political pressures resulting from the Brexit vote, which of course catapulted May in to No 10 in the first place. Her government hasn’t had much time to think.
Nonetheless, that May is yet to offer any indication that she will seek to extend devolution deals to other big cities, or that she will consider handing down more powers…