Jake Berry: “It’s high time we moved power and money away from Westminster”
Jake Berry says he has ‘waited decades’ for the north to be taken seriously by politicians at Westminster. And as the man now in charge of the Northern Powerhouse, he is ready to work with MPs from all parties to make sure central government puts its money where its mouth is
The first thing that strikes you on entering Jake Berry’s office is a portrait of Winston Churchill. Typical for a Tory minister, you might think – but this is a painting with a difference, a Francis Bacon-style pop art rendering by the Liverpudlian artist Sam Walsh.
It seems to encapsulate the Minister for the Northern Powerhouse – a proper Tory, but with a distinctly modern, northern twist.
Appropriately for his brief, Berry is something of a pan-northerner, born and raised in Liverpool before studying in Leeds and later working in Manchester. While he’s clearly no stranger to Whitehall after seven years in Parliament, Berry insists the north is his “natural home” and where he feels “most at ease”.
And while any minister will tell you they’re loving their brief, the Rossendale and Darwen MP seems authentic in his enthusiasm for “special” and “unique” characteristics of the region.
Another “huge bonus” of the portfolio is that Berry can spend more time in his Lancashire constituency than he would in any other ministerial job. That’s especially welcome as he has a nine-month old son to help look after.
His is among the newest jobs in government, with the Powerhouse project only taking shape three years ago when George Osborne was still riding high and Brexit seemed at best an improbable fantasy.
“When George launched the Northern Powerhouse I think across the north people thought ‘this is something really different,’” Berry says. “I’d waited decades, my entire life, for any politician to come forward and say actually there’s something special, there’s something really unique about the north of England and we’re not going to treat it like every other part of the country, we’re going to do something unique and special with a unique and special area.”
While he’s full of praise for the former Chancellor, Berry makes clear that he is overseeing a markedly different phase of the Powerhouse project. He sees his role as an altogether wider brief than the Osborne era which he says “often appeared to be about the M62 corridor”, rather than the “whole north” approach he is pursuing.
He’s cites the Budget announcements on investment to the north-east, for instance. And it’s not just the north of England, but the adjacent regions of Wales and Scotland, with a new North Wales growth deal and a Borderlands deal.
There were concerns that with Osborne’s departure from frontline politics and the burden of leaving the EU, the Powerhouse could lose its thrust. Those were partially allayed by Philip Hammond’s recent Budget, with the announcement of big investments in the north-east and more money for ‘Crossrail for the North’.
About time, might be the response of many in regions which have for decades been chronically underfunded compared to the south-east. It’s a point acknowledged by Berry, who admits that “generations of governments” have “failed to properly invest in the north of England”.
While it’s nothing new for a politician to wax lyrical over their home patch, Berry is remarkably effusive about the great swath of northern England.
“The north of England, on quality of life, I think trumps anywhere else in the country every day of the week,” he says. “You’ve got the Lake District on our doorstep, you’ve got the north Yorkshire Moors, the West Pennine moors, the coast, the Northumberland coast, the Cumbrian coast.
“In terms of your quality of life there is nowhere better than the north of England. But what we’ve got to do is make sure that is matched by the ability to get to work in a reasonable way and make money.”
He is keen to stress that he shares this outlook with many Tory colleagues. “The Conservative party isn’t a party that’s just focused on the south of England. It’s untrue. I work with all the MPs across the north of England and all of them are absolutely passionate about where they live and where they represent, but also that wider northern project.”
Part of that project is devolving a lot more power to the cities of the north, which means the Government working with Labour mayors in Liverpool and Manchester.
Far from seeing this as a hurdle, Berry seems to relish a more ecumenical approach. “You would be surprised about how much we agree on,” he says. “I think with our Metro Mayors you have a group of people who, on a cross-party basis, are prepared absolutely to put their political differences aside. This project isn’t really about politics, I think it’s bigger than that.”
He says he’s seeing the same approach from northern MPs in the Commons, who are increasingly “hunting as a pack”, regardless of party loyalty, to get more out of the Treasury for their regions.
Berry sounds remarkably like another Merseysider, Andy Burnham, when he talks about being drawn to politics “to take power away from London and Whitehall” – though he jokes that as a Liverpool fan he “struggles” with the Evertonian mayor of Greater Manchester.
“We are a very, very centralised country,” he continues. “The reason for that, and I understand why it is, is in the last century we’ve fought two World Wars as a country. We waged total war and it is absolutely necessary that we did things like nationalise our industry, centralise our government, have a very centrist state.
“That is not the world we live in today and I think that is high time that we took lots of those powers and, yes, money, away from Whitehall and put it back in the hands of the people who live in those areas.”
Berry argues that “nothing should be off the table” in terms of moving power away from London, including potentially shifting civil service jobs out of Westminster into northern cities.
“I’m absolutely passionate about driving forward devolution further and faster across the north of England and I think as part of that, where it is necessary and possible, we should look at moving people from government departments out of Whitehall to the rest of the country.”
He’s also keen to stress his party’s magnanimity in creating Metro Mayors for areas where they have little hope of success, not least his home city.
“We haven’t done that because we think the next mayor of Liverpool is going to be a Conservative – as someone born and brought up in Liverpool I suspect that’s not going to be the case. We’ve done that because it’s the right thing to do. It’s not just the right thing to do for the north, it’s the right thing to do for the whole country.”
But beyond that apparent altruism, Berry believes getting stuck into the problems people in the north face will ultimately reap electoral dividends too.
“You know, a child born in the north of England is no less ambitious than a child born anywhere else in this country and I think people will back a government who recognise that, who say ‘your child, your business, your family, your job’ is important and we have this big project to make sure that you, regardless of your background, regardless of where you started, can fulfil your full potential.”
He is equally clear that trying to paint Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell as relics of a failed socialist experiment will simply not work, especially with the younger voters the Tories need to win over.
“On election I knocked on someone’s door, I was talking to them about the danger of nationalisation and the 70s and they said to me – it sort of did make me laugh, they were 18, it was the first time they’d voted – they said ‘we have literally learnt about this in history, in school in history GCSE’.
“So, I think we have to talk to people in a way which is relevant to them about how capitalism and our market economy is something that has driven consumer choice, it is something that has created great wealth for our country and it is in fact a really good system for people who want to get on in life.”