After just eight weeks in the wilderness, George Osborne is back – and wants to put the pressure on Theresa May to use the phrase ‘Northern Powerhouse’ and the agenda that goes with it. Here’s an edited transcript of his BBC Today Programme interview this morning with Nick Robinson.
NR: We want to talk about the Northern Powerhouse, but just to be clear then, you’re not tempted to follow your now ex-leader out of politics and spend some time writing your memoirs?
No, I’m not. I don’t want to write my memoirs because I don’t know how the story ends and I want to hang around and find out. And there’s an enormous opportunity now to take part in the decisions that are going to affect Britain. We’ve taken a big decision which is to leave the European Union, there are now a whole host of new decisions about what our relationship is with Europe, how we run our economy, how Britain behaves in the world, and I want to be there in ultimately still the place where these decisions, the House of Commons, and be part of that decision-making process because I want to fight for the things that I care about: an international Britain, a Britain connected with its allies, a Britain taking its full share of responsibilities in the world.
NR: Well, first and foremost, that idea of the Northern Powerhouse is about how we run the economy in this country; you’ve written an article for The Sun today in which you say, ‘the Northern Powerhouse is here to stay.’ Why do you feel you need to say that?
Well, I think, to be honest, there was a little bit of a wobble when we had the new administration about when whether they were still committed to the concept of the Northern Powerhouse. And the concept is not just that the north of England’s a great thing, I’m a Member of Parliament in the north, and of course I believe that, it’s a very specific idea that the cities of the north, and the counties are actually geographically quite close to each other and if you improve the transport links, if you create new, powerful elected mayors, if you make big investments in the science and the culture here then the whole can be bigger than the individual parts.
NR: But are you sure the wobble is over? I mean, Theresa May’s chief of staff, her advisor, Nick Timothy, was one of many who thought the Northern Powerhouse focussed too much on a single city, single part of the country, and what was needed was a much broader approach to revive in the areas of the country outside London. Now you may have persuaded her to use the phrase, and I’m told that took a lot of persuading to get her to use that phrase, the Northern Powerhouse, but does she actually back that idea?
I’m the first to say we need to support economic development across the whole of the country. And by the way, I sweated blood to get a mayor for Birmingham. That was one of the most difficult things that I pulled off in office [Editor’s note: four years ago, the people of Birmingham voted 58/42 against having an elected mayor. So foisting a mayor upon a city whose people voted against it is, in Osborne’s defence, pretty difficult.]
I’m passionate about building up the engine of the West Midlands, but in the north of England there is a particular opportunity because the cities are close together and the Northern Powerhouse Partnership that we’re creating will be led by the business community, it will have Labour and Conservative civic leaders involved in it and I can tell you today that the former Mayor of New York, Mike Bloomberg, is going to work with the Northern Powerhouse Partnership to help the newly elected mayors next year get the best experience from around the world to make a success of governing in this part of the country.
NR: On grammar schools something has changed more fundamentally, hasn’t it? Do you not think the plans to open up more grammars risks taking this government out of the mainstream?
Look, I support the goals that Theresa May set out in her speech of delivering first class education to every child in this country. I have always thought with the debate about grammars that 80% or the political discussion is about where 20% of the children go, when in fact we should be focussing on where 80% children go in a selective system. And for me, the great transformation of the last six years, driven by Michael Gove and Nicky Morgan under David Cameron’s leadership, has been the academy and free school programme. I’m all for elements of selection, I’m not against new grammar schools opening where areas want them, but I think the real focus of education reform remains the academy programme transforming the comprehensive schools that most people in this country send their children to.
NR: One George Osborne, Shadow Chancellor, back in 2007, said ‘we don’t believe in schools choosing pupils. We believe in pupils choosing schools. That is where the education debate is all around world’. So your new leader, the new Prime Minister, has, according to you a few years ago, taken you and your party out of the mainstream.
GO: Well, as I say, I think the focus of education reform should continue to be improving the education that the vast majority of children get. And actually, Theresa May, in her speech, made it clear that she wasn’t just interested in creating additional grammar schools, she wanted to make sure that children who didn’t go to selective schools were getting a good education too. You know, Justine Greening I think is a terrific Secretary of State, I have worked with her over many years, and listening to her statement, that’s the focus of her efforts and given her background, that doesn’t surprise me because she has first-hand experience of how state education in Rotherham can transform life chances.
NR: You made it clear that you’re not going to follow David Cameron, you’re not going to leave politics; the language he used about why he felt he had to leave the Commons was that he might be a distraction, are you prepared to be a distraction to stand up for what you really believe to be in the interest of the country? In other words, when you decide to stay in the House of Commons, are you going to tell us what you really think, rather than trying to keep quiet because it might upset the Prime Minister?
GO: Certainly staying in the House of Commons, I would want to draw attention to the issues and the causes that I care about. That’s part of the purpose of being a Member of Parliament and one of the reasons for remaining in the House of Commons.
You will have clashes and you will be a distraction then?
Not necessarily. I will be championing the things that I have always cared about, which is where is the voice for the liberal mainstream majority of this country, who do not want to be governed from the extremes, who want Britain to be internationalist, outward-looking, free trading, who want a socially just society, that’s the cause that I believe in and gosh we’re going to have a whole set of decisions over the next couple of years. Find the country we want to be and I want to be contributing to that debate, not round the cabinet table, but in Parliament, making clear that these decisions matter not just to me and my constituents, but to my children and to future generations.
I just want to play you a clip of what Ed Davey also had to say yesterday when he was on The World at One about you. Just take a listen.
Ed Davey: ‘We really disliked each other. Maybe it’s not well-known by the public, but George Osborne, partly because he saw Theresa May as a rival and his general demeanour, eh could be quite rude to her in cabinet and Theresa May, we don’t agree on everything, but she’d be well-briefed, well-evidenced and have arguments and statistics to back up her arguments and George Osborne rarely did. And that was my experience of him as well. He wasn’t a Chancellor that didn’t deal with evidence very much.’
Well you might want to reply about what he says about you, but the key point is they really disliked each other. Is that true?
Genuinely not true, I’ve worked with Theresa for twenty years in Opposition and in Government. I actually think that she’s a person of real integrity and intelligence, and frankly, in a cabinet that included people like Ed Davey, she was one of the grownups.
NR: Let’s talk about the substance then, you said it’s an incredibly important time, and it is. You argued against Brexit passionately, you put your job on the line to do that. Being heard now, as you clearly want to be, do you feel any need at all now to say, ‘maybe I didn’t get this all right’, because of course, you did keep using this warning of immediate economic shock and only yesterday, the Bank of England raised its growth forecast, retail sales are strong, house prices are still rising, exports are going up, so do you need to say, ‘you know what, I still believe in staying in the EU, but I didn’t get that quite right’?
When it comes to the economic warnings, look, I hope I’m wrong, I spent six years turning around the British economy and I cheer good news and I don’t want to see bad news. The forecasts were made in good faith, the truth is if you look internationally at the independent forecasts of the UK, they are all predicting a significant slowdown, and it’s going to be a long drawn-out process. And in the end, the strength of the British economy is going to depend on our relationship with our major trading partners and one of the things I will be arguing for in the House of Commons is for the closest possible trading relationship, free trading relationship with our European neighbours.
Seeing the scale of the challenge, is there not just a tiny bit of you that’s thinking, ‘I’m slightly relieved not to have to carry out these decisions’ which in the end, you never believed in?
I was Shadow Chancellor at the age of 33 and for over 11 years I’ve been travelling at about 100 miles an hour every day and I’m not pretending this is where I thought I’d end up this summer, but actually, plan B is actually quite enjoyable and it’s given me a chance to do what is quite difficult to do in government which is think again about where I made mistakes, think about the big problems that lie ahead for our country and the big challenges that face our country and that’s what I’m enjoying doing at the moment.
So next step: onto the Strictly dance floor?
No, I think I’ll leave that to Ed.
George Osborne, thank you very much indeed.