At least in rhetoric, Boris Johnson is hailing a dubious era of investment in England’s Northern hemisphere. Not unlike all those politicians that have gone before him, he has promised to splash out on education, the NHS and Northern transport, pledging a Northern Powerhouse Rail modelled on London’s Crossrail. He’s stated his intent to preserve and restore British Steel, a dominant force in the North East’s economy, while also turning Teesport into a ‘free port’ – thus gifting it with preferential trading arrangements. He’s even thrown in a commitment to improving provision for special needs education, which will give a small lifeline to local constituencies such as Durham, who earlier this year expressed a ‘debt crisis in SEND provision’ to the tune of £5.6 million.
These are hardly the dramatic bailouts the region would hope for: though they look like massive giveaways when compared with the stinginess of governments prior.
By conveniently rediscovering the Tories’ ‘magic money tree’ and pledging to divert a substantial chunk of it across Northern England, while making tangible commitments to a No-Deal Exit, Boris is doing something genius. He is appealing directly to the region’s staunch Lexiteers: left-wingers who want Brexit but rely heavily on public services. If austerity was the only thing keeping many Northern Labour strongholds semi-resistant to Conservative rule, Boris’s unorthodox political approach – and frank borrowing of long-held Labour manifesto pledges – may just clinch their support.
Of course, many other politicians, such as George Osborne, have made similarly blasé commitments which have failed to materialise. But Boris knows it’s different this time because of Brexit. Fed up with Labour’s lack of clarity on the issue – among the fact that all-but-one North Eastern constituency voted to Leave in 2016 – the region is perfect breeding ground for Boris’s new, patriotic, spend-heavy Brexit Britain. While the ‘Boris Bounce’ seemed muted in the Brecon by election, its impact in the North East is untested but guaranteed. This is mainly because of the region’s specific dynamics: high suicide rates, high unemployment figures, low immigration, a dominant age demographic between 40-55, a propensity to have voted Brexit and a history of voting Labour. Many Northern Labour MPs now fear a general election precisely because they know they might get turfed out. It doesn’t matter that Boris’s promises are most likely bluster and will damage the North East in the long-run. All he needs is to get his no-deal over the line.
In reality, Boris’s entire strategy will serve only to destroy the limited infrastructure the North of England has. The Confederation of British Industry has explicitly warned that the North-East will be hardest hit by a No-Deal Brexit because of the threats to its manufacturing industries and the region’s reliance on the EU as an export market. Bridget Philipson, Labour MP for Houghton and Sunderland South, recently tweeted a snapshot of the economic damage no-deal would inflict on her constituency – regardless of the spending Boris has pledged. She said: ‘Brexit will not make Sunderland richer, more equal or more free. Around 60% of our exports go to the EU and, on a per job basis, we export more into the EU than any other British City.’ Later, she added: ‘Johnson wants my city and my constituents to pay the price for him to stay in Downing Street. A No-Deal Brexit was hardly mentioned back in 2016, but it will wipe out jobs and industry.’
So, then, as Boris continues to make waves up North, by showcasing his devout commitment to anti-austerity, a Brexit that ‘works for everyone’ and the burgeoning potential of the ‘powerhouse of the North’, he sacrifices ever more livelihoods for his own political gain. Who knows what the result of that will be?