Politicians playing to the North of England is nothing new. Multiple governments have been vying for its favour during elections, with David Cameron’s government making points of ‘rebuilding the Northern Powerhouse’, and with Theresa May continuing this sentiment during her time in Downing Street.
However, despite these platitudes, the North has never before garnered serious focus from the Conservatives. Why the overlook? Collectively and homogeneously the northern areas are known as the red wall — meaning they’ve been concretely Labour heartlands for as long as many can remember. Yet the North-West is the third most populous region in England — a sizeable chunk of voters.
This all changed in 2019 when Boris Johnson accomplished his political dream by becoming Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. His whole career has been leading up to this; from his time as a Eurosceptic journalist in Brussels, to the two terms as London’s rambunctious Mayor. Boris was one of the first major figures to publicly support Brexit, becoming Foreign Secretary in May’s government and rounding his journey off with the ultimate victory in the leadership election following her departure.
Yet the government he takes over is weak — a minority government. He needs a Big majority to have any hopes of breaking the deadlock that’s gripped Parliament and much of British political discourse for the past three years. He’s got a plan, and he needs to make a big, bold and audacious move to execute it. Boris breaks traditional Labour heartlands in the North (though overwhelmingly characterised by Leave voters), with promises of ‘Get Brexit Done’ and of ‘Levelling up’ the communities so they rise to economic parity with the richer South.
He wins by a landslide, dismantling the red wall and creating a new pool of first-time Tory voters out of life-long Labour supporters. But their allegiance is not yet solidified. They can be counted on only while Brexit is in progress, once done, they could just as easily swing back to Labour.
A global pandemic put a pause on many developments in the UK, with a pinch placed on the overstretched public purse strings. One cost however that purportedly can’t be avoided is the refurbishment of the Palace of Westminster — with the ‘crumbling’ building reportedly needing £4bn worth of repairs and a potential vacation of both chambers in the meantime. Thus, an opportunity is created to turn an essential cost into a political move — Boris proposes they relocate the affected government functions, along with some of the Civil Service, to York, Northern England.
York: A typical Northern city?
York — a city of roughly 200,000 people — is known to most in the country as a quaint, historic place with cobbled streets and a towering cathedral. A university city, with the institution consistently ranking in the top tiers nationwide. Yet what is less commonly known is the economic standing of the city in relation to the rest of the UK. A visit to the centre with all its bustling boutiques and artisanal coffee shops indicates it’s certainly not a poor place; but just how rich is it?
York is rich. Cash-rich. A 2017 study indicated the Northern city is the third cash richest city in the whole of the UK. To put that in perspective, London is the cash richest by a long shot at £274.5bn, but York’s position at third with £13bn ranks it above all the other major English cities such as Manchester at £9.6bn, Birmingham with £5.7bn, Leeds comfortably at £3.3bn, and Newcastle in at £2.2bn. In fact, the area of West and North Yorkshire lying between Harrogate, York and North Leeds is commonly referred to by estate agents as the Golden Triangle because of how affluent the areas within it are.
Bursting the bubble? Or moving it North?
People often complain of the ‘London elite’ and the ‘Westminster bubble‘ when referring to politicians and civil servants who live and work in the capital. They argue that those within this privileged cocoon have no perspective of the issues that exist in areas outside Parliament or London — as the city is a demographic, economic and cultural outlier compared to the rest of the country. Consequently, No 10 insiders have reportedly said that Boris’ idea of bringing a ‘government hub’ to the northern city in one of the biggest shake-ups of Westminster’s 800-year history shows he wants to ‘take back Parliament to the people’, with a willingness to change things by having government experience and engage with what’s been plaguing their new and often overlooked areas in the North. But is York really an indicator of the intention to bring government down to earth? If the idea is to gain a fuller perspective, York may not be the best placed to reflect the issues indicative of the average northern area.
When many other northern areas were still struggling with the remnant of poverty left in the wake of the big industries’ continuous decline, a report even as far back as 1998 claimed York was the wealthiest city in the North. It had seemingly been inoculated from much of the strife other northern cities have faced for some time. And this is still the case. York’s neighbouring cities Middlesbrough, Hartlepool and Hull are some of the poorest areas in the UK — putting the affluent city in a similar position to London; as an outlier in its surroundings.
So if Boris ‘wants each part of the country to feel connected to the government’ then why were the other bigger, more populated, metropolitan, and crucially, poor northern cities overlooked? Cities that are arguably more in need of immediate attention that a government hub could bring. Cities such as Middlesborough, Liverpool, Manchester or Hull.
North in name only
Boris is unique in doing what few Conservatives could. He took the North with promises of Brexit and of levelling up an area that has lagged far behind the rest of the county. But where Boris tows the line is in his apparent lack of real determination to execute these plans. And although his potential move to the northern city seems unprecedented from a historic perspective, the reality may be that the 200-mile shift to York will just mirror the much scrutinised Westminster bubble.