RUTH SUNDERLAND: The North needs a Boris boost. But if he doesn’t deliver, his new voters won’t forgive him
Boris Johnson and the Conservative Party have won an opportunity to reshape the political landscape for a generation.
Their big challenge, linked inextricably to Brexit, is to succeed where their predecessors have failed, and bridge the North-South economic divide.
A wave of people in the old Labour heartlands of the North have taken a huge psychological and emotional step by voting Tory for the first time in their lives. They have not done it lightly, and will not take it lightly if they are let down.
Boris Johnson poses with workers during a visit to Wilton Engineering Services in Middlesbrough last month. If the Conservatives wish to hold on to new Northern voters in places like Middlesbrough, they must tackle England’s North-South divide
How Johnson and Chancellor Sajid Javid handle the economy will determine whether or not that first Tory vote will be their last.
When I travel back to my home town on Teesside, it’s impossible not to be struck by the contrast with the wealth in London.
The multi-million pound apartment blocks, the supercars and the swish restaurants are a different world from the rundown houses and air of depression a couple of streets from Middlesbrough town centre. Andy Haldane, the chief economist at the Bank of England, has pointed out that the problem of regional inequality in the UK is worse than in other developed countries.
Our gap between the regions, measured in terms of income per head, is twice as large as in France and three quarters larger than in Germany.
Boris Johnson faces an immediate challenge with British Steel in Scunthorpe, where uncertainty is putting 4,000 jobs and thousands more in supply companies at risk
The long downturn in the North East dates back to the Seventies and gathered pace in the Thatcher era.
One of the tragic ironies of the New Labour years is that, despite many of the leading lights having constituencies in the North-East, including Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson, the decline was not reversed. More than a million manufacturing jobs were lost and hundreds of thousands more went after the financial crisis.
George Osborne, whose constituency was in the North West, had a go with his Northern Powerhouse initiative but it dwindled away, as did Theresa May’s industrial strategy. If Johnson is going to fulfil his promise to unite the country and ‘level up’, then he will have to do much better.
He faces an immediate challenge with British Steel in Scunthorpe, where a deal with the Chinese looks uncertain, with 4,000 jobs directly and thousands more in supply companies in the balance.
A Johnson government should invest in improving transport links between northern towns and cities: a better rail link between Newcastle and Teesside, for example, would be transformative
Beyond that, the key to modern advanced manufacturing is innovation but shockingly, at present, more than half of all the country’s research and development spending goes to just three southern regions.
The government could help by spreading R&D funding more evenly around the UK. Investment in education and skills is also key to having a workforce that is prepared for the fourth industrial revolution. And a Johnson government should invest in connecting northern towns and cities: a better rail link between Newcastle and Teesside, for example, would be transformative.
Above all, manufacturing would be at risk in the wrong kind of Brexit. Just-in-time supply chains rapidly break down if there are delays and friction at borders. The risk is that major overseas investors, including car makers like Nissan in Sunderland, will either scale back or even begin to dismantle their UK operations.
The electorate has staved off hard-Left policies that would have flattened the economy and we now have more certainty over the timing of Brexit.
A great opportunity is within the country’s grasp. The Conservatives will not be forgiven by their new Northern voters if they let it slip through their fingers.
Many of the people who voted for Boris Johnson live in places that have barely recovered from the 1980s.
He must repay their faith. We know he has formidable abilities, which he has devoted to Brexit and the election. Now he needs to pour his energy into creating the economic renaissance that has eluded the North for decades.