Jake Berry: “This is the last big challenge I want to take on”
The Lancashire Tory MP tells Kate Proctor how a year beset with personal tragedy has helped him rediscover his mission – to deliver real change for the north of England
Glancing over at his ringing mobile, Jake Berry says: “Oh, it’s the Prime Minister – would you mind waiting outside?” Sure enough, I catch a few seconds of Boris Johnson’s distinctive tones before retreating to the corridor.
Berry has spent the preceding 30 minutes discussing how the government can fix its relationship with the north of England. It’s excellent timing to have the boss on the phone.
The pair, who are very good friends – Johnson is godfather to his son – now speak a few times a week. However, in the February 2020 reshuffle he lost his job as northern powerhouse minister when the role was scrapped as a stand-alone post and absorbed into transport secretary, Grant Shapps’, brief. He says he doesn’t know why that happened, but it’s clear he’s got the Prime Minister’s ear right now.
Still only 41, Berry says his last big political job will be to deliver real change for the north of England. He doesn’t care if it’s from the backbenches, and he has already proven in the last few months he is an effective lobbyist with the creation of the Northern Research Group (NRG).
As chair, he co-ordinated 54 Tory MPs to sign an open letter to Johnson asking for a roadmap out of lockdown for their constituencies, and recognition the pandemic had exposed the “deep structural and systemic disadvantage faced by our communities”.
Most powerfully of all, the letter suggested that his close friend might do well to remember that his majority was in part built on the back of northern voters. It was perceived as a sign of a major rift between Johnson and Berry.
The Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s £4.8bn Levelling Up Fund announced at the Spending Review was widely seen as a direct response to the NRG’s request for support, and an attempt to show that the election winning slogan actually meant something.
We need to be the party of the regions. I guess we’ve probably got as many MPs in Greater Manchester as in London now
Berry’s vision for what’s possible doesn’t stop with more roundabouts, faster bus links and high street improvements, though they are extremely welcome. Free from the ministerial straight-jacket – which he appears to have swapped instead for a trusty flat cap – and with time to reflect over lockdown, the Rossendale & Darwen MP has more than a few ideas about how the government can achieve its levelling up agenda.
And interestingly, it doesn’t start with him getting his old job back.
Every region should get its own minister, he explains. “We need to be the party of the regions. I guess we’ve probably got as many MPs in Greater Manchester as in London now.”
He suggests the electoral battleground of the future will be in towns, as the recent pattern of Labour doing well in cities and Tory success in the countryside becomes even more entrenched.
“If you live in a small town like Rawtenstall [in his Lancashire constituency] you want to understand that the government has a vision for you and your life, and I think that’s been lacking from the political discussion from the last 20 years. That’s what we want to bring absolutely to the centre of the government’s mission.”
Asked if the northern powerhouse minister position in government is necessary, he says: “In an ideal world you’d have teams of ministers working together on a regional basis.”
Gordon Brown tried regional ministers for three years from 2007 until he left office. David Cameron axed them, but at various times during the coalition he created positions including minister for cities, minister for Portsmouth, and of course the northern powerhouse job.
“It doesn’t matter what you call them. The only thing that matters is the powerbase, and if you don’t have the powerbase you either get serious or go home,” Berry says, in his typically direct manner.
Anyone given regional responsibility needs to enjoy the level of access and knowledge he had in his last job, which was cross-departmental and enabled him to attend Cabinet, he adds.
“So if you don’t have the powerbase to work across government, and that can only really be done by at least attending Cabinet, then it is just window dressing and people will just ignore it and move on because it won’t make any difference.”
The second Tory HQ should not be located in Leeds, but instead a northern town like Wakefield, Preston or Darlington, Berry feels.
He criticises the big announcement from party chair Amanda Milling unveiled at this year’s digital party conference – of a new Tory HQ in Leeds – saying it was just “lazy shorthand” for consolidating power in the north.
“My own personal view is that moving CCHQ from one city that has a Harvey Nichols to another city that has a Harvey Nichols isn’t actually getting under the skin of northern voters,” he says.
“I just think it’s a hell of a missed opportunity but I hope as we get more established that they might think again about moving to a town.”
Establishing a Conservative party “northern board” involving Tory politicians, northern council leaders, and business people who can “guide and steer the Conservative party in the north of England” is another suggestion.
“We should have a northern business person who comes and chairs it. We have some amazing entrepreneurs in the north of England. You just have to look at the Issa brothers who own Euro Garages.
“They are two guys who set up their business in a bedroom in Blackburn and who have now bought Asda. If you want the northern Conservative party to succeed, bring in an entrepreneur from the private sector who can drive it in a way that they’ve driven their businesses and really push it forward. Quite frankly you don’t want politicians running the northern CCHQ.”
The government has also suggested that it will establish an economic campus in the north of England. He says this needs to be “high level, high value jobs. Not just back-office functions.”
Berry has been an MP since 2010. He was born in Liverpool, studied law at Sheffield University and then trained to be a solicitor. As soon as he won his seat from Labour he was given a string of high profile jobs, including parliamentary private secretary to minister, Grant Shapps, and a place in David Cameron’s policy unit.
In the summer of 2016, Berry was photographed entering Johnson’s Oxfordshire farmhouse as part of the core team plotting his leadership bid, alongside Ben Wallace and Amanda Milling. He was then given the job that seemed to have been invented for him – northern powerhouse minister in 2017.
He is married to Alice Robinson, the former head of Johnson’s parliamentary office, and the couple have had three children in four years. Berry has spoken recently in the press of an incredibly difficult time for the family, which has seen Alice battle postnatal depression, and his own grief following the death of his brother from cancer, and his mother’s death this summer. He has said that he feels like a changed politician.
Lockdown is a huge reset. I’ve rediscovered my mission; what gets me up in the morning
Berry’s professional ascent has only really seen one major hurdle. Since the summer he has been embroiled in stories about the controversial £3.6bn Towns Fund, which was administered by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government last year.
The Commons’ Public Accounts Committee said the decision-making behind which towns got the cash awards had not been impartial.
It also emerged communities secretary, Robert Jenrick’s, constituency town of Newark was granted £25m, to which Berry, as communities minister, had given the green light. Berry’s constituency was also awarded money.
The pair, on the advice of the civil service, had given money to 40 “high-priority” towns, then selected 61 more from the low and medium-priority categories. Twelve low-priority places were chosen, including one ranked 536 out of 541 towns in need, believed to be Tory-held Cheadle.
The National Audit Office found they had met the tests for managing public money, and though they had deviated from the recommended number of town deals per region, overall, this had been acceptable.
But Meg Hillier, chair of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), said the system had given the appearance of being politically motivated.
Berry says, “I absolutely disagree. I think we should just accept that politicised select committees do make political judgments; PAC has a Labour chair.” He says he would have been happy to go and talk to the committee about the process if they’d asked.
Will the furore have done reputational damage to the fund? “I don’t think so. I think the people who live in these towns are very pleased the government has come forward with a plan to support towns.”
Back in his Westminster office, with his flat cap in his pocket, Berry is clearly looking to the future. “The thing is, I think it’s quite rare that in life you get an opportunity to step back and look at what you’ve done,” he says.
“Lockdown is a huge reset. I’ve rediscovered my mission; what gets me up in the morning. This is the last big challenge I want to take on and I just want to keep going on this agenda [to support the north]. I can do this just as well from the backbench as the frontbench, and this is what I am going to campaign for.”
And with a Johnsonian flourish and a laugh, he says: “Famous last words but ‘things can only get better in 2021’.
“We’ve got to drive for the line.”