The £1.6bn the PM has promised to secure Labour support for her deal is no match for years of systematic neglect
Theresa May’s bung is like Donald Trump’s wall. You give me my Northern Ireland border deal, she says to Labour, and I will give your people oodles of cash. Except that May has blown it. She has promised Labour MPs in the Midlands and north £1.6bn, but they have not promised her the deal. She is apparently relying on the kindness of their hearts. How stupid is that? She is even offering them a similar deal on workers’ rights, again with no reciprocity. She showered a billion on the DUP, and now look how it treats her. Will she not learn?
The northern bung should be judged on two levels. May desperately needs her deal, and anything might be thought worth it that gets us through the current political chaos. But it is also proof of the cancer that hard Brexit has brought to modern government. The handout offers £1bn to deprived regions on a “needs” basis. This appears to be a mild adjustment of the last austerity-based formula of grants to councils. May says it is because “prosperity has been unfairly spread” between north and south. How was it fair when the formula was calculated last autumn, yet not now? As for the additional £600m, it is not unconditional. It will go to lucky towns that can bid for local partnership or city challenge projects.
In other words, the chancellor, Philip Hammond has merely brought forward some of the extra revenue said to be coming his way in his spring statement. There is no change in the traditional Whitehall paternalism. The cities money is a case of the lord of the manor handing out goodies to the indigent, if they win Whitehall’s version of It’s a Knockout.
May is right in one respect. She said many people voted for Brexit out of a desire “for a change for the better, with more opportunity and more control”. But she is not offering more control. She is merely making a marginal redistribution of money from the south-east northwards. There is no comparison of her £1.6bn over four years against vastly larger sums being tipped, year after year, into the pockets of London and the south-east’s Heathrow, Crossrail, Olympics legacy site and HS2. It is less than is reportedly going to London’s fat-cat consultancies to prepare for no-deal Brexit. There are no “challenges” in London: it just gets whatever it wants.
The reality is that every single shift in the structure of British government over the past half century has stripped the provinces of investment and creative talent, and sent them hurtling south-eastwards. The can of worms that May has inched open is one of a massive imbalance in Britain’s political economy. It has rendered Britain incorrigibly divided by Brexit. . £1.6bn of overnight charity will not reverse it.
• Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist