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  1. Politics
1 March 2021

What do Jake Berry and the Tory Northern Research Group want?

The chair of the new Conservative backbench group makes clear that he is prepared to turn on Boris Johnson if he neglects the “levelling up” agenda.

By Freddie Hayward

In 2010, on a quiet residential road in Rochdale, Greater Manchester, Gordon Brown was caught on mic calling a Labour supporter a “bigoted woman”. Gillian Duffy had approached the prime minister during the general election campaign and finished the conversation feeling satisfied with Brown’s answers. But repelled by her reference to eastern Europeans “flocking” to the UK, Brown later dismissed her concerns, unaware he’d left his microphone on. The following week, three miles down the road, Jake Berry turned the Rossendale and Darwen constituency Conservative for the first time in nearly two decades.

Since then, Labour has struggled to lead the debate over the systemic regional inequality that is destabilising England. By contrast, the Conservatives have brandished initiatives such as the Northern Powerhouse Strategy and the “levelling-up agenda”, the government’s label for its promise to redress the north/south divide. The north of England subsequently punished Labour heavily at the 2019 general election, with the party losing 29 MPs and the Tories gaining 28. Many of these new Conservative MPs are members of the Northern Research Group (NRG), which includes more than 50 Conservatives, with Berry as its chair. 

In recent years, Berry, 42, has become a leading advocate of the north at Westminster. He was appointed Northern Powerhouse minister in June 2017 but was removed from Boris Johnson’s cabinet last February (despite being a key supporter of the Prime Minister’s 2019 Conservative leadership campaign). When we spoke recently, Berry told me that he still regards Johnson as a “good and genuine friend”, adding that “reshuffles are a thing unto themselves and no one really knows why things happen but certainly what’s happened… It’s not for me to be disappointed”. Since then, the NRG has become a considerable threat to Johnson’s authority – recently pressurising the government to retain the £20-a-week increase in Universal Credit – and has joined other Conservative backbench groups as a bloc that government whips have to keep on side. 

Perhaps Berry is aware of this tension. During a speech in November challenging the government’s inaction over struggling football clubs, he said: “We need a northern economic recovery fund so we can ensure as a praetorian guard for the Prime Minister that we are levelling up our communities across the north.” His reference to a “praetorian guard” reflected his concern for Johnson’s future electoral success, but may also have been a warning that northern Conservative MPs will turn on the Prime Minister if the levelling-up agenda is neglected. In October, the NRG sent a letter to Johnson urging him to “reflect carefully” on the promises made to northern voters in 2019. 

During our conversation, Berry outlined his desire to reverse Westminster’s decades long neglect of the north of England but he appeared to be straddling conflicting positions. For instance, he supports devolution but is focused on Westminster-led solutions. It’s also tricky to escape the incongruence of his advocacy for the north with his close friendship with Johnson. 

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Does he think that the Old Etonian former London mayor is truly sympathetic to the endemic problems of Hull or Carlisle? “I’ve always found the Prime Minister to be empathetic… I think [he] is a fellow traveller on this road,” Berry said. 

It makes sense, then, that Berry aligns himself with Johnson’s approach as mayor, which he characterises as “fairly interventionist… while at the same time being unapologetically in favour of free enterprise and business”. Berry says that he believes in low tax and regulation, but that state intervention is required to fix broken markets. “The best politicians,” he told me, “are pragmatic and prepared to mercilessly cross the political spectrum in terms of ideologies”.

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Berry grew up in Liverpool, studied law at Sheffield University and became a solicitor. Having turned down a Foreign Office role during last year’s cabinet reshuffle, he now sits on the back benches and says that he would rather focus on “burning injustices and inequality based on [UK] geography… than being fettered in a ministerial position to which that mission bears no relation.” The Northern Powerhouse brief was subsequently awarded to the Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps, a decision that Berry criticised. 

“I think that department is actually the wrong fit for the Northern Powerhouse. The Cabinet Office… is the only completely cross governmental department,” he said. “The minute you start putting it in departmental silos like transport, other government departments lose interest.” 

For Berry, merging the brief with transport was symptomatic of the mistaken perception that the sole problem in the north is its transport infrastructure. He says he would solve the north/south divide through improved education, higher research and development spending, the abolition of the “factory tax” and a “green industrial revolution”. 

The Conservatives’ attempt to address England’s regional inequality began with George Osborne’s launch of the Northern Powerhouse strategy in 2014. But since then the substantial change that was promised has failed to materialise. According to a 2019 IPPR (Institute for Public Policy Research) report, the UK is more regionally divided than any other comparable country and the north of England has missed out on £66bn of transport funding over the past decade because its per capita funding was less than London’s. 

In the same year that the Northern Powerhouse was launched, Greater Manchester agreed a devolution deal with the government for a directly elected mayor. Berry supports mayoralties such as Manchester’s being developed throughout the region. The Conservative manifesto promised a white paper on English devolution in 2020, but the new year passed and no white paper materialised. Berry declared his support for devolving power away from Westminster but he also wants to increase the power of MPs. “MPs are community leaders and their voice should be heard,” he said. 

He supports a greater role for MPs in the distribution of money through the Levelling Up Fund, which was announced by Rishi Sunak at the November 2020 spending review, and admits that while he was minister he ensured that MPs had influence over the 2019 Towns Fund. That initiative set up new bodies to oversee investment rather than relying on mayoralties and combined authorities. A parliamentary select committee found that the selection process of towns was not impartial and that elected mayors were not consulted. The fact that projects supported by the Levelling Up Fund must be completed within this parliament does not dispel doubts about short-term, parochial policy more concerned with winning elections than addressing inequalities. 

But perhaps something more radical is required. When I suggested that the UK parliament be moved to Manchester to create a New York/Washington DC-style relationship, Berry replied that Manchester should not be viewed as the sole saviour of the north.

“I wouldn’t be against moving the House of Lords to the north… particularly during the refurbishment and rebuilding of the Palace of Westminster,” he said. “But it doesn’t need to just be about parliamentarians. We need to see the government move forward with their promises to move government departments in their entirety out of London… including permanent secretaries.”

Yet in a subsequent answer he proudly noted that Chinese and Abu Dhabi foreign direct investment into Manchester was one-and-a-half times the size of the entire Levelling Up Fund. Doesn’t this show the fund’s paucity? 

“No, I think what it shows is that even the Labour leader in Greater Manchester and the Labour mayor don’t believe that the only place you can go for investment is the government,” Berry replied. He views Manchester metro mayor Andy Burnham’s vocal criticism of the government during the pandemic as a sign that devolution is working, despite reports that ministers were now sceptical of further devolution.

The government’s plan to address regional inequity was unveiled before the pandemic triggered Britain’s worst economic recession for 300 years. There’s a risk that “levelling up” is replaced by “build back better” – a simple return to the inequity that persisted before Covid-19. For instance, in January the government cut core funding for Transport for the North by 40 per cent. This is something that Berry recognises and he has urged the government to “build back different”. But with the national debt at its highest level since 1963 (97.9 per cent of GDP) the government has an excuse to abandon “levelling up” – as it has the devolution white paper. 

While Berry supports greater devolution, for him the Northern Powerhouse is ultimately an economic project. Last month he co-authored a report titled A Northern Big Bang, advocating a northern version of Margaret Thatcher’s 1986 “Big Bang” deregulation of the City of London, which paved the way for an era of financialisation. The Centre for Policy Studies document called for deregulation and tax cuts in a bid to stimulate private-sector investment. “I think for some time there’s been a growing feeling across the north that those in Westminster who are responsible for collecting our taxes and spending our money have had no real plan to improve our lives,” Berry said at the report’s launch. Beyond the obvious irony of invoking a Thatcherite policy that contributed to today’s London-centric economy, it is striking that Berry again looks to London for solutions to northern problems.

Writing in the 1960s, the poet Basil Bunting described Northumberland as a “land uneasily asleep, but by no means absorbed in London’s England”. Berry seems to recognise that the north is a land uneasily asleep, but he locates the region in London’s England. He is not a northern knight who will solve the inequity pervading the country, but it would also be unfair to dismiss him as a Johnsonian courtier. 

As our United Kingdom slowly disintegrates, attention necessarily moves north of the border and across the Irish sea. But England itself is vulnerable to collapse without major reform; perhaps not constitutionally but as a viable, coherent whole. While it would be a mistake to focus on one person, Berry’s advocacy for the north in Westminster may encourage the government to act. But seven years on from the launch of the Northern Powerhouse, the Conservatives can’t help but regard the north in terms of London’s England.