Paul Linford: George Osborne seems to have ensnared Labour in a classic political trap

The Journal's political columnist, Paul Linford, on how the pace of devolution quickened this week - and what it means for the North East

Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne at Manchester City Council, Town Hall
Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne at Manchester City Council, Town Hall

First off, congratulations to Jennifer Williams of the Manchester Evening News for doing something I never managed in seven years as political editor of The Journal: getting a story about regional devolution followed-up by the nationals.

It was Jennifer who broke the news on Thursday that the government was planning to hand £6bn worth of health funding to Greater Manchester in the most audacious manoeuvre yet in the increasingly frantic bidding war over greater powers for the English regions.

Within hours, the story was not only dominating the airwaves but had also managed to put the Labour Party on the defensive on two issues – the National Health Service and regional devolution – that it sees as being very much its own.

The impact of Jennifer’s scoop was illustrative of the extent to which English devolution – once the province of a handful of obsessives like yours truly – has risen up the political agenda over the past decade.

With less than 70 days to go until the General Election, there can be no doubting the politics of Thursday’s announcement. Indeed, it had the fingerprints of the Tories’ election strategist George Osborne all over it.

As well as seeking to boost their election prospects in the North, the Tories seemed to be challenging Labour to choose between having a national health service and having regional devolution.

Labour’s uncertain response – with shadow chancellor Ed Balls sounding broadly supportive of the move while shadow health secretary Andy Burnham warned it could lead to a two-tier health service – showed that the ploy had worked.

Not for the first time in recent weeks, Labour had been shown to be not only less radical than the Tories on both devolution and NHS reform, but also as divided on both issues.

Until very recently, the idea that Whitehall might be prepared to give up powers over health funding as well as transport and business rates to a combined authority of ten Greater Manchester councils would have seemed somewhat fanciful.

As North-East devolution campaigners know only too well, it was the Blair government’s reluctance to hand its proposed regional assembly anything like as much power in 2004 that contributed to the failure of that initiative.

But in the wake of the Scottish independence referendum, the hitherto centralising instincts of the two main parties have suddenly transmogrified into a Dutch auction of pledges to devolve more and more powers and funding.

The question which now arises – and which the CBI has recently highlighted - is whether we are in danger of “rushing” into devolution in a way which both hinders economic growth and creates a postcode lottery in health care and other services.

In one sense, the government’s Greater Manchester pledge is no more than the logical outworking of the 2012 Health and Social Care Act, which does indeed envisage the end of the NHS as a single organisational entity and which will, if taken to its logical extent, ensure the service ceases to be “national” in any meaningful respect.

In this regard, Mr Burnham is almost certainly right to smell a rat, in that devolving health funding to a combined authority will serve to further entrench a piece of legislation which Labour has pledged to repeal.

But the dangers for Labour in being seen to oppose a move which moves power closer to the people in one of its core electoral heartlands are obvious.

Mr Osborne – himself a North West MP – appears to have ensnared them in a classic political trap.

But beyond the short-term electoral ramifications, the move seems to indicate a step-change in progress towards greater devolution to the English regions.

That will doubtless be viewed positively by the North-East’s own combined authority, although unlike Greater Manchester’s, it is continuing to resist the government’s entreaties to move towards an elected mayoral structure.

It now seems certain that whoever wins the election, the next Parliament is likely to see possibly the greatest transfer of powers from Whitehall to local and regional-based institutions than has ever taken place within England.

But whether that will be at the cost of a truly ‘national’ health service remains very much open to debate.

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