In his 2012 book, The Austerity Chancellor, Janan Ganesh notes George Osborne was never “taken with localism, wondering why a politician would strive to win power only to give it away”, particularly given concerns “about the electoral consequences of empowering hated councils”.
Mr Ganesh missed the Northern Powerhouse and the former Chancellor’s highly visual conversion to political redistribution, but the omission highlights an interesting and ironic point: for all localism’s diverse intellectual history, it is now dominated by the vision of one man: George Osborne.
The last month has been an exercise in testing this theory. Thinkers and commentators, myself included, have picked apart the limited words Theresa May has offered us in search of hidden messages or preference. What’s her agenda for local government? Where next for devolution? Is it over for city region mayors? Every question is acting as an implicit measure of the distance she wishes to place between herself and the MP for Tatton.
George Osborne’s passion for the Northern Powerhouse is clearly genuine and the launch of his Northern Powerhouse Partnership, alongside Greater Manchester’s Labour leaders, sent a powerful message to Number 10. From behind the battlements of the great northern cities, he still plans to wage his war to remake the Conservative party. Localism, politically at least, has now become Osbornism.
For local government this is a blessing and a curse. Rarely has the sector had someone of Mr Osborne’s calibre so squarely in its corner, not only as a former chancellor, but as his recent Today Programme interview suggested, potentially still a future prime minister. The credibility he lends the devolution agenda is significant and elevates it in the minds of mainstream elites. Conversely, he’s also politicised it to such an extent that those suspicious of Osborne are now equally so of devolution. Whilst this mightn’t be a permanent block, it could certainly slow things down.
In fairness to Theresa May, she has made all the right noises. There’s still a Northern Powerhouse minister and elections for metro mayors are going ahead. Whilst the agenda feels like it is wobbling, the foundations are stronger than conventional wisdom suggests.
Jane Wills’ new book, Locating Localism, argues that mainstream political parties laid claim to localism in response to questions that centralised politics wasn’t answering. Thankfully both Ms May and Mr Osborne acknowledge that the most pressing of these questions is how to distribute the benefits of growth more fairly across our country. Devolution, localism, or even industrial strategy - whatever we choose to call it - they’re all connected by a sense of place. On this central point, our former chancellor and new prime minister are closer than either would like to admit.
Mr Osborne’s political identity, if it weren’t already, has become enmeshed with northern renewal. From the Treasury he could claim the Northern Powerhouse was simply an economic strategy; a vessel empty of partisan ambition. Now out of government, this becomes harder to argue.
As a Tory MP said to me recently: “Mr Osborne is much more interested in the future of the Conservative party than even some of those close to him understand. He wants to redraw the political map.” The new king of the north has shown his hand. In doubling down on the Northern Powerhouse, George Osborne has created a rival centre of Conservative political power to Theresa May’s Westminster.
The prime minister might not like the former chancellor, but is she prepared to fold his whole strategy, both economic and political, because of it? Theresa May might not be a localist, but she is a pragmatist. It seems George Osborne is remaining as relevant to the devolution agenda out of government as he was in it.
Liam Booth-Smith, chief executive, Localis