On the surface, the battle lines at the Tory conference were plain for all to see. Theresa versus Boris. Boris versus the soft Brexiteers, then Boris versus Priti Patel, then Boris versus pretty much anyone you cared to mention. The Tories versus Corbyn. The Tories versus the internet firms. The Tories versus their bleak future.
But there was one more tussle, and it might rumble on longer than any of the above. One side of the row found its most explicit voice in Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson’s speech. The UK, she said, was too “London-centric”, for all the “devolution of power in the last 20 years”.
She talked of disgust with “a capital city already zooming forward on the jet fuel of high finance”, where “the economy is further boosted by enough civil servants to fill Wembley.”
It didn’t get much traction: After all, Davidson was just doing her job – trying to get more power transferred to Holyrood after Brexit – wasn’t she?
But it wasn’t just the Scots in the hall who enjoyed hearing a big name give the capital a kicking, and Davidson appeared to branch out far beyond the issue of political power: “We live in a country where the property values of London's top 10 boroughs are worth more than all of Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales combined.
“Where you can sell a three-bed semi in Ilford, and buy half of Sutherland.”
This was all “crazy”, Davidson said.
Why were the Tories in Manchester? Why set up shop in the heart of a Labour city, forcing a lockdown so severe that the delegates, weaving their way through the barricades and police lines, could have been forgiven for thinking they were walking through the set of a John Carpenter film?
Last time round, the Tories had to hide their passes for fear of being attacked in the streets. This year they were greeted by thousands of protesters and effigies of them dangling from nooses below a city centre bridge.
No matter: This time they had something to offer the locals. The Northern Powerhouse was back on the agenda. The day after Davidson’s speech, Philip Hammond announced £400 million for rail and road schemes, which would boost economic development in the North.
Labour dismissed it as a drop in the ocean. In the face of swingeing local government cuts, the money was seen as little more than a smokescreen. The papers carried on reporting on Boris.
But localism – perhaps in the absence of any other optimism – was back on the menu.
At the fringe meetings, over lunches and coffees, buoyed by Davidson’s words and Hammond’s announcement, MPs and local government officials from around the regions did what they’d really come to Manchester to do: fight for their piece of the pie.
There’s something in the theory that every Tory secretly wants to be Joe Chamberlain.
But those regional representatives weren’t alone. London was doing just the same.
“It’s not a zero-sum game,” sighed a London government official, when asked about Davidson’s words.
“George Osborne – the editor of the Evening Standard – his Northern Powerhouse was not supposed to come at the expense of London,” they added.
But they were in no doubt Hammond’s £400 million announcement did exactly that. It was, they claimed, the latest in a “long line” of payments from central government to the regions, the kind of investment they felt the capital’s local authorities had not seen in a long time.
London was taking the conference seriously. James Murray, the deputy mayor for housing, and Val Shawcross, the deputy mayor for transport, both attended, speaking at three fringes and holding a number of meetings. Two more officials from the Labour mayor’s office attended.
The line coming out of the capital was clear. Give us money, and the return on your investment will be so great that the rest of the UK can’t help but reap the rewards.
A spokesperson for the mayor of London told BuzzFeed News: “Sadiq Khan has called for a major increase in infrastructure spending across the entire UK and not just in London. He believes that is the best way to support new growth and jobs in the decades ahead, as Britain leaves the European Union.
“He believes it is important to recognise that when London succeeds, so does the rest of the country. Crossrail is an excellent example of that as it will boost the national economy by billions of pounds and support thousands of new homes and jobs, beyond London and into the wider South East.”
Last year, Westminster Council, which also sent a delegation to the conference, produced a glossy brochure called “The Case for the West End”.
“The West End is the most dynamic and diverse city centre in the world with a huge capacity to rapidly generate economic growth and jobs, which benefits the UK as a whole,” the introductory text began.
But, it went on: “Without investment in its public spaces, transport and other infrastructure, investors will become attracted to better business environments elsewhere, putting the West End’s current and future prosperity at risk.”
A set of huge figures in bright orange text dominated a facing page: “£409m reinvested now = £3.8bn additional raised over 13 years.” The amount the council is looking for from the Treasury is a little lower now, but the argument remains much the same.
The brochure is the council’s sales pitch to Hammond. It remains to be seen if the Treasury will buy it. The figures are tricky: You can make the case that London receives way more infrastructure spending than the rest of the UK just as easily as you can make the case that its taxes prop up the regions.
If Davidson’s speech was the opening shot in a longer struggle, the capital is yet to really fire back. The battle lines are not clearly drawn: Testimony from the fringes suggests there are many local MPs who see their growth as dependent on a strong London.
Asked about Davidson’s speech, Nickie Aiken, the leader of Westminster City Council, was diplomatic: “I don’t think London and the rest of the country doing well are mutually exclusive ideas. Ruth Davidson is absolutely right that the whole country needs to feel the benefits of a strong economy.
“London remains vitally important for the national economy but I do understand that the rest of UK feels that there needs to be a rebalancing of the economy to be less London and South East centric.”
However, she went on: “The capital is the shop window for commerce and often the first port of call for big investors with national ambitions who go on to bring jobs and investment to all four corners of the country. A strong London provides economic opportunities that the whole country benefit from.”
Certainly, there seems to be little dissent on the issue of devolution. Khan’s spokesperson pointed out how the mayor “continues to work with city regions across the UK in calling for greater devolution of powers. He believes metro mayors and city governments are best placed to serve the needs of their residents and deliver ongoing economic prosperity.”
But power is nothing without money. And with the scraps falling from Whitehall’s table becoming increasingly scarce, the squabbling over them is set to intensify.
Alan White is a news editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Alan White at email@example.com.
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