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17 March 2017

I always thought George Osborne was sincere in his commitment to the north. I was wrong

The former Chancellor is now editor of the Evening Standard and an adviser for BlackRock. Where does the Northern Powerhouse fit in his schedule?

By Jonn Elledge

You know, as uncomfortable as it’s been, I’ve sometimes found myself defending George Osborne. Okay, he was an unmitigated disaster as Chancellor, plunging Britain back into recession through austerity, balancing the books on the backs of the poor, and generally making everybody miserable.

But at least he’d noticed the north-south divide – a chasm down the middle of Britain which means that, economically speaking, it looks increasingly like a central European country with a booming Singapore in one corner. At least, unlike most of his party, he seemed to think this was a problem it might be worth actually doing something about.

There’s always been a lot of cynicism from the left, about both Osborne’s commitment to the north and his plans for devolution. Okay, he’s a Cheshire MP, the man behind the new metro mayors, and the guy who wouldn’t stop banging on about the Northern Powerhouse. But the latter, surely, was just empty words, an attempt to look like he cared without ever actually having to fix anything. As for devolution, what was he devolving? Cuts, that’s all: an exciting opportunity for local councils to take the blame for his shitty austerity budgets.

I always pushed back against this – not because I thought Osborne secretly harboured a heart of gold, but because I thought his naked partisanship had momentarily lined up with the right thing to do. The only place Labour was still reliably competitive was in the big provincial cities. If Osborne could revive Tory fortunes there – by building the odd transport link, attracting private investment, boosting the local economy – then it was hard to see how the Labour party would ever come back.

I didn’t much like the idea of eternal Tory hegemony. But I did like the idea of a richer north, with trams all over the place and where people could commute across the Pennines on a high-speed train. I liked the idea of decisions about Manchester being taken in Manchester, not by civil servants in Whitehall who may never have been to the place.

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And so, in the absence of a better plan, I was cautiously behind the Northern Powerhouse. At least it was a plan. I even, in one of my sillier moments, argued that Osborne should show he was serious by making a quixotic run at the Manchester mayoralty. He’d have lost, obviously; but he’d had made it look like a big, important job, and he’d have proved himself to be serious about the north. Osborne’s support for the Northern Powerhouse may have come about for all the wrong reasons – but I never doubted his support.

Well – how stupid do I feel right now.

Because Osborne never did take my advice to get into the weeds of the Manchester mayoral race. Since being unceremoniously sacked from government last July, he’s taken on a number of new jobs. He’s launched a new think tank, called the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, of which he remains the chair.

But it’s hard to see when he’ll be doing any chairing, because he’s also still an MP, and he’s being paid £650,000 a year to do a day a week for the US fund manager BlackRock. And today, it turns out, he’s taken on a fourth job, editing London’s Evening Standard newspaper. “Our only interest,” he said in the paper’s story announcing the appointment, “will be to give a voice to all Londoners.”

If there’s anything that communicates one’s commitment to the north even better than taking on three other jobs based in London when you’re supposed to be a northern MP, it’s that.

I always thought Osborne was a terrible chancellor. I always knew he was a cynic. But I thought his cynicism had led him stumbling, by some miracle, into a Damascene conversion in which he’d realised that the only way to fix this country, its economy and his party’s long term prospects, was to bridge the chasm down the middle of this island.

Turns out I’m an idiot.