Kevin Maguire: Northern revolt is the latest low for Osborne
The chancellor is facing a power cut in his Northern Powerhouse as MPs and councillors set themselves against his reforms.
Does George Osborne have the Sadim Touch? That’s Midas in reverse when everything the Chancellor touches these days seems to turn not to gold but to dust.
The disintegration of the political wheeze he, not Education Secretary Nicky Morgan, unveiled with great fanfare to force every school in England, including outstanding infants and juniors in local communities adored by parents, to endure expensive bureaucratic upheaval to feed the academy chains was another bad mark on his record.
Budgets have turned into raffles when major U-turns on everything from tax credits and pension relief, disability payments and police cuts, and of course the crumbling of the notorious pasty tax, mean a group of angry MPs, led by disrespectful rebels in the Tory ranks, will pick big ticket items and batter a once unassailable Chancellor into another humiliating change of direction.
The greatest surprise isn’t Osborne’s dream of succeeding Cameron in Downing Street is fading but the Prime Minister’s chief lieutenant remains in the leadership race, stumbling without so far falling completely flat on his face when he remains a potential rival to Boris Johnson or Theresa May or, coming up on the outside, Michael Gove when Dave departs in the months or years after the momentous, epoch-defining decision the country takes on 23 June.
Britain remaining or leaving in the European Union will define the prospects of the Tory candidates for the Premiership yet it never rains but it pours for the tarnished Chancellor when a potential Powercut in his Northern Powerhouse is added to a lengthening personal list of problems.
The revolt of MPs and councillors against the imposition of mayors in large swathes of the North is jeopardising the political hopes of a Chancellor yearning to prove himself as a reformer who reshaped the governance of Britain.
From the start the project was all bribes and bullying, fundamentally undemocratic when the regional figureheads would be created without consulting voters via referendums because the powerful posts were likely to be rejected. Instead local authorities starved of funds, struggling to save services when central government support is slashed, were told bluntly to adopt a mayor and receive cash or suffer the nightmayor of nothing.
The refusal of Gateshead on the south bank of the Tyne to play the game threatens to create a hole in the centre of Osborne’s North East Authority stretching from Berwick-upon-Tweed to in Northumberland down to Barnard Castle in County Durham.
Totting up the sums, working out how much was lost in cuts in regional development funding, localising business rates, slashed public health and reduced central government money to local authorities through the rate support grant, Gateshead calculated swallowing a regional mayor isn’t worth it.
The danger for Osborne is other authorities will be encouraged to hold out when the democratic argument is strong. The good people of Newcastle, Gateshead’s neighbour, voted against introducing a city mayor in 2012. The referendum 12 years ago on a North East Assembly rejected by a crushing majority of nearly 4-to-1 the new body. So there is a lack of legitimacy in the region’s proposed mayor stitched-up between Osborne and desperate councillors with the electorate to be presented with a fait accompli next year.
Nor is Labour frontbenchers Andy Burnham and Luciana Berger expressing interest in Osborne’s Greater Manchester and Merseyside Metro mayors silencing grumbling on their own benches in Parliament or dissident Tories concerned the centralisation of influence will weaken genuine localism.
Without the approval of referendums, Osborne’s mayors are another top-down fix to basic questions about how communities organise and decide local priorities. The Chancellor sidestepped voters because the record shows they usually reject directly elected mayors. Osborne’s Sadim Touch strikes again.